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Forgiving a breadth of fresh air

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Forgiving… a breadth of fresh air

by Rev. Fr. L. X. Jerome S. J.  

 

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

 

President Clinton tells of his first meeting with Nelson Mandela. In his conversation with this great leader of South Africa, the president said, “When you were released from prison, Mr. Mandela, I woke my daughter at three o’clock in the morning. I wanted her to see this historic event. As you marched from the cellblock across the yard to the gate of the prison, the camera focused in on your face. I have never seen such anger, and even hatred, in any man as was expressed on your face at that time. That’s not the Nelson Mandela I know today. What was that all about?”

Mandela answered, “I’m surprised that you saw that, and I regret that the cameras caught my anger. As I walked across the courtyard that day I thought to myself, ‘They’ve taken everything from you that matters. Your cause is dead. Your family is gone. Your friends have been killed. Now they’re releasing you, but there’s nothing left for you out there.’ And I hated them for what they had taken from me. Then, I sensed an inner voice saying to me, ‘Nelson! For twenty-seven years you were their prisoner, but you were always a free man! Don’t allow them to make you into a free man, only to turn you into their prisoner!’” (Let Me Tell You a Story By Tony Campolo)

Thank God, Nelson Mandela listened to this inner voice. Otherwise, he would have served life-imprisonment in his hatred. Forgiveness had set him a free person and, even after his death, he lives on as an inspiration to thousands of men and women all over the world.

 

Today’s Gospel invites us to reflect on one of the magical ability human beings possess – the ability to forgive and be forgiven. Both these are two sides of the same coin, as expressed by St Francis of Assisiin his famous prayer for peace: “In pardoning, we are pardoned.” We are called to reflect on this basic gift given to every human being.

 

It is now 16 years since the ‘9/11 attacks’ took place in the U.S. 9 and 11… are not simply numbers. They are painful memories etched deep in the psyche of not only the people in the U.S. but of the rest of the world as well. In 2011, 10 years after this tragedy, the 9/11 Memorial in New York at Ground Zero was opened. This Memorial has many meaningful exhibits, one of them being a cross. Here is a newspaper report on this cross:

A cross-shaped steel beam found amid the wreckage in the days following the September 11 terrorist attack has been lowered 70 feet down into the bowels of where the twin towers once stood to become part of the exhibit at the National September 11th Memorial and Museum. The two-ton, 20-foot-high T-beam, which has now become a religious relic, was taken from its temporary post near the oldest Roman Catholic parish in New York City, St Peter's, it was a symbol of hope for many working on rescue and recovery there, so much so that the construction worker who discovered it believes he stumbled on to a miracle. 'I saw Calvary in the midst of all the wreckage, the disaster,' Frank Silecchia recalled. 'It was a sign... that God didn't desert us.' (By Daily Mail Reporter, 25th July 2011)

 

Although the American Atheists have objected to this Cross being part of the Memorial, it is very heartening to see that thousands have drawn inspiration from the Cross. The Cross inspires people in so many ways and teaches us so many lessons. One of the lessons learnt from the Cross and, more particularly, from the Crucified Christ is forgiveness. He preached and practised forgiveness all his life. He ‘breathed’ forgiveness and hence when he was about to stop breathing, he wanted to leave that as his last breath.

 

It would be hard for us to deal with all that Jesus did and said about forgiveness. We shall focus on just one aspect of forgiveness taught by Jesus. How many times do we forgive someone who errs? All of us must have faced this question in our lives. Peter had this doubt too. Here are the opening lines from today’s Gospel:

Matthew 18: 21-22

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”

 

This conversation between Jesus and Peter is not a lesson in numbers. Forgiveness goes beyond numbers and calculations. When Peter asked Jesus whether forgiving seven times would be sufficient enough, Peter would have imagined that Jesus would appreciate him. Forgiving someone seven times was quite a generous gesture for a Jew. But, Jesus tells him to go beyond.

I imagine the conversation between Jesus and Peter in this fashion:

Peter: Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?

Jesus: Peter, your question is pretty surprising to me. ‘How often should I forgive my brother?’ It is like asking me, ‘How often should I breathe?’ If you don’t breathe, you die. If you don’t forgive, you die too. The simple formula… Forgiving = breathing.

Peter must have been stumped by this response from Jesus. So are we all. To say that forgiving should be as much part of us as breathing seems too contrived, too much of an exaggeration, isn’t it? But, it is surely worth the try.

 

There are people in the world who have tried this and have lived out forgiveness to the full – one of them being Nelson Mandela. I am sure most of us have heard of many instances where people were ready to forgive way beyond expectations. I am reminded of the news item which talked about how a father went to the death row to meet the young man who had raped and killed his teenage daughter. After coming back from meeting the young man, the father told the media that putting that man to death was surely not a solution and that he would want that man to come out of prison to lead a better life.

 

I have heard of a documentary “As We Forgive” made by Laura Waters Hinson in 2008 about the people of Rwanda. In February 2009, inspired by this movie, Catherine Claire Larson wrote a book: As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda. Here is a review of the book from Publishers Weekly:

Rwanda—bloodied, scarred and nearly destroyed by the 1994 brutality of the Hutu genocide of Tutsis—is now called an uncharted case study in forgiveness by author Larson, who was inspired by the award-winning film As We Forgive. Individual stories form prototypes: there is Rosaria, left for dead in a pile of bodies, who forgives her sister’s killer. And Chantal, whose family is brutally murdered yet who forgives her neighbor for the crimes. Devota, mutilated and left for dead, survives, forgives and eventually adopts several orphans. Each story is horrible and deeply personal as Larson mines the truths of forgiveness deep in each ones tale. Helpful interludes offer readers hands-on ways to facilitate forgiveness and take the next step to reconciliation in their own lives. This isn’t an easy book to read or digest, yet its message is mandatory: Forgiveness can push out the borders of what we believe is possible. Reconciliation can offer us a glimpse of the transfigured world to come.

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

 

Following the tragic events of 9/11, there were many decisions made – decisions that were official as well as personal. Official decisions were focussed more on hunting down the perpetrators of this tragedy. These decisions resulted in more deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq. Retaliations by the ‘terrorists’ took place in other places. The chain of revenge, retaliation, retribution still continues. Unfortunately, only these violent events have been reported by the media and are embedded in our memory. But, there were hundreds and thousands of personal decisions made by individuals to snap this chain of violence and begin the process of reconciliation. Revenge, retaliation, retribution can be stopped by reconciliation at the personal level as was done by Nelson, Rosaria, Chantal, Devota… and thousands more. There must have been thousands of such healing stories after the 9/11 attacks.

 

The Lord invites us today to search for and concentrate on these true events that are not easily available to us from the media. We need to go the extra mile to reach reconciliation. We need to fathom deeper to discover forgiveness. It has taken ten years to clear the debris of Ground Zero and turn that spot into a Memorial. It would take each of us a life long time to clear the debris of hatred and revenge in our hearts to turn them into 24x7 clinic of healing!

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Prescriptions for Peace – from Dr Jesus

by Rev. Fr. L. S. Jerome S. J.  

 

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

 

Some emails go around the web world repeatedly. One such mail that I have been receiving now and then in the past few years, is the short reflection written by Brian G. Dyson, the former CEO of Coca Cola. I am sure all of you must have seen this reflection too. Brian’s reflections as well as today’s gospel talk about family relationships. Here is what Brian wrote: “Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them - Work - Family - Health - Friends - Spirit, and you're keeping all of these in the air.

You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls -- family, health, friends and spirit are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life.”

 

Brian goes on to give 12 tips as to how one can balance one’s life. Today’s Gospel talks of how to achieve balance in a relationship that is soured or how to set right the mistake committed in our family circles. The words of Jesus sound simple - I would even say simplistic - but, very challenging. Here is the text from today’s Gospel of Matthew:

Matthew 18: 15-17

Jesus said: “If your brother (or sister) sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.

But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.'

If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

 

The opening words of Jesus are a veritable salvo… Although I have read this passage quite a few times, this was the first time I felt the impact of this salvo. Jesus begins by saying, “If your brother (or sister) sins against you,…”

When a problem arises in our family or among friends, we expect the one who had committed the mistake to take the first step. But, here Jesus reverses this logic. Not the one who sins, but the one who is sinned against needs to take the first step towards setting things right! I am reminded of the famous lines of Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount.

Matthew 5: 23-24

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.

Jesus did not say ‘if you have something against your brother or sister’, but he makes it clear that even ‘if your brother or sister has something against you’, you cannot proceed with your offering… Talk about challenges!

 

In both these instances, I presume, Jesus was more keen on getting the problem resolved rather than spending time on investigating as to who caused the problem or wait for the ‘culprit’ to take the initiative. Hence, he proposes that we take the initiative and He says this simply AS A MATTER OF FACT, as a matter of NORMAL COURSE OF ACTION. If only in every family, someone takes the initiative to resolve the conflict as soon as it arises, instead of allowing it to fester, so many hurt feelings can be healed… So many psychiatrists, and, even priests, would go out of business!

 

Jesus proposes three steps for resolving family problems. The first one is the most sensible adult-to-adult transaction. Confronting (or, care-fronting) the person privately and telling him or her about the mistake… calling a spade a spade! When this does not work, then the second and third steps, namely, the intervention of a third party!

Quite a few scripture scholars say that the very last step proposed in Matthew’s gospel, namely, “treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector”, may have been an addition by Matthew. This line does not reflect the ‘all-inclusive-attitude’ of Jesus. I tend to agree with this view, especially since Jesus, in the opening lines of this passage, proposes the hard step of taking the initiative to resolve problems. This initiative is more towards reconciliation and healing rather than sitting in judgement on my brother or sister.

 

Talking of family problems, one can think of the way TV serials (soap operas) handle these problems. Every episode tries to make family problems more and more complicated. The more complex the problem, the better for the soaps. Unfortunately, there is a sizeable audience which tends to agree with soaps that tell us that family problems are always complicated. As against this, when Jesus proposes simple, adult-to-adult transactions, we tend to brush his words aside saying that they are too idealistic or impossible!

 

Talking of how simple things can help foster family ties, I am reminded of the meeting Pope Francis had with the families in October 2013. There were thousands of family people who had gathered in St Peter’s Square as one of the peak events of the Year of Faith. This meeting of Pope Francis is etched deep in our memory due to a small boy in yellow shirt! He kept Pope Francis engaged for quite a few minutes and this video went viral on the YouTube! In this meeting, Pope Francis spoke of three magical words that would make any family healthy. Here are the words of Pope Francis:

“Some weeks ago, in this very square, I said that in order to have a healthy family, three words need to be used. And I want to repeat these three words: please, thank you, sorry. Three essential words! We say please so as not to be forceful in family life: “May I please do this? Would you be happy if I did this?”  We do this with a language that seeks agreement. We say thank you, thank you for love! But be honest with me, how many times do you say thank you to your wife, and you to your husband?  How many days go by without uttering this word, thanks! And the last word: sorry. We all make mistakes and on occasion someone gets offended in the marriage, in the family, and sometimes - I say - plates are smashed, harsh words are spoken but please listen to my advice: don’t ever let the sun set without reconciling. Peace is made each day in the family: “Please forgive me”, and then you start over. Please, thank you, sorry!  Shall we say them together? [They reply “yes”] Please, thank you and sorry.  Let us say these words in our families! To forgive one another each day!”

 

What Jesus proposes in the today’s Gospel sounds too simplistic and hence, we back off. We would rather go to a psychiatrist who may make things more complicated than go to Jesus. Similarly, the three magical words of Pope Francis - Please, thank you and sorry - also may sound too simplistic. Simple things, quite often, slip out of our focus.

If only we could give an honest chance for the words of Jesus as well as the advice of Pope Francis!!!...

 

P.S. We began this reflection with the warning given by Brian G. Dyson who talks of how we may break the glass ball ‘family’ beyond repair. For many of us when something breaks, we consider it as the end. Our throw-away culture tends to dump it in trash. But, there is another side to ‘broken things’. This is proposed by Sean Buranahiran, a young man, probably from Thailand. This video is called “Be Proud of your Scars”

Here is what Sean says: 

“When a bowl is broken in Japan, it is put back together with the cracks being filled with gold, creating a beautiful lining. This is to emphasize the beauty in what was once broken. They believe that when something has suffered damage and has a history, it makes it more beautiful.

And the same goes for human beings. Everything you have been through, everything you’re going through, doesn’t make your life uglier although it may seem that way when we’re going through it. It’s up to us to choose to paint our struggles with gold and make it beautiful.

You are not broken beyond repair. You can pick yourself up and learn from what’s happened and become a better person from it… You can wear your scars proudly as a badge of honour…

Nobody has had a perfect life and nobody ever will. It’s only up to us if we choose to paint our broken pieces gold and make it beautiful…

I once heard a quote that said, “Every next level of your life will demand a new you” and sometimes it takes being broken in order to become that new version of yourself.”

 

Proclaiming violence and destruction!

by Rev, Fr. L.X. Jerome S. J. 

 

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

 

In 1961 the Good Pope St John XXIII wrote an encyclical called ‘Mater et Magistra’. This, along with his other more famous one – ‘Pacem in Terris’ – the one on world peace, addressed to all the people of good will, stand out among his various encyclicals. ‘Mater et Magistra’, written during the troubled 60s, described the Church's beautiful role as a mother of the faithful, but also her duty as a teacher of humankind. One Catholic columnist who was upset by what the Pope had to say, wrote an essay entitled “Mater sí, Magistra no!” For him it was fine that Church was a tender, loving mother, but he closed his ears when she pronounced teachings he did not like.

This columnist is, probably, a representative of many of us. Many of us turn to the Church as a protecting, embracing Mother when we are badly hurt. When a loved one dies or some other crisis explodes, people instinctively turn to the Church like an injured child seeking the healing touch of the mother. It is good that the Church welcomes us in a motherly embrace; but when the Church tries to show us why we hurt ourselves and others, we tend to back away from her.

 

Last Sunday we saw Jesus as a mother rewarding Peter for his profession of faith. This week we see Jesus, the Teacher. The switch over was only a matter of minutes. When Jesus spoke about building the Church on the shoulders of Peter, he must have gone on a flight of fantasy. The term ‘Messiah’, used by Peter in his profession of faith, means ‘the anointed’. When Peter used this title for Jesus he must have imagined Jesus being anointed like the kings of Israel. Especially as they were approaching Jerusalem, Peter’s instincts must have told him that something special was going to happen in the city.

Jesus opens today’s Gospel by saying that something special was going to happen in Jerusalem, but not as imagined by Peter: From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. (Matthew 16:21)

This prediction of Jesus must have brought Peter crashing down from his flights of fantasy. He wanted to put some sense into his Master and received a very strong reprimand: "Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men." (Mt. 16: 23)

 

Jesus addressing Peter as ‘Satan’ sounds too harsh. But, it also opens our eyes to see some similarities between what Jesus experienced at the beginning of his ministry, in the desert, and now, almost at the end of his ministry… on his way to Jerusalem. The temptations offered by Satan in the desert were ‘good’ temptations. Satan did not tempt Jesus to kill, to cheat etc. They were simply temptations related to short-cuts and compromises. Similarly, towards the end of his ministry, as he was approaching Jerusalem, Jesus is tempted by his close friend, Peter. What Peter suggested was not anything ‘bad’. Probably he would have suggested to Jesus not to clash with the temple authorities etc. Peter was truly concerned about Jesus’ safety.

This brings us closer home. Most of our temptations are not about killing, cheating, etc. They are temptations of ‘simple adjustments’, and ‘minor compromises’. Quite often, they come from those who love us and are concerned about us.

 

We are sadly aware that compromises with the world cannot lead us to the Kingdom. The road to the Kingdom is the road less travelled. Jesus himself has given us an indication about this lonely journey or battle we have to undertake. “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:13-14)

Many prophets were required to take up this lonely and, seemingly, meaningless mission. No prophet has been accepted in his own country, or, for that matter, by the world at large. The world tried to ‘integrate’ Prophets into the mainstream life and failed miserably. Hence, they were eliminated.

 

Knowing that the life of a prophet is always to swim against the current, many prophets tried to escape from their call. But God pursued them until they completed their mission. In the first reading today, Jeremiah expresses his agony of being a prophet:

Jeremiah 20:7-9

You deceived me, LORD, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed.

I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me.

Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction.

So the word of the LORD has brought me insult and reproach all day long.

But if I say, “I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones.

I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.

Truly agonising words!

 

The world needs prophets… prophets like Jeremiah. The world needs to hear the bitter truth of what is wrong with it. Most of us prefer to keep silent and not speak up when things go wrong. That is why Martin Luther King once said: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” Very true, even today!

The opening slate of the famous movie JFK by Oliver Stone shows a quote by an American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox: “To sin by silence when we should protest makes cowards out of men.” In the movie script of JFK, there is a line spoken by the actor playing the role of Jim Garison, the District Attorney of Orleans Parish, Louisiana: “Telling the truth can be a scary thing sometimes. It scared President Kennedy, and he was a brave man. But if you let yourself be too scared, then you let the bad guys take over the country. Then everybody gets scared.”  How true of our times!

Let me close these reflections with quotes from a famous Jewish writer Elie Wiesel. Eliezer Wiesel is a Romania-born American novelist, political activist, and Holocaust survivor of Hungarian Jewish descent. Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. The Norwegian Nobel Committee called him a "messenger to mankind," noting that through his struggle to come to terms with "his own personal experience of total humiliation and of the utter contempt for humanity shown in Hitler's death camps," as well as his "practical work in the cause of peace," Wiesel has delivered a powerful message "of peace, atonement and human dignity" to humanity.

“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” - Elie Wiesel

“The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. Indifference, to me, is the epitome of evil. Because of indifference, one dies before one actually dies.” - Elie Wiesel

 

When the world follows the line of least resistance, we may have to toe the line of uncompromising fidelity. This is the challenge offered by Jesus in the closing lines of today’s Gospel. These lines was the ‘mantra’ used by St Ignatius on St Francis Xavier to leave the comfort and compromise of the world and pursue the cross and the crown (not of glory, but of thorns). Do these lines mean something to us today? “For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?” (Matthew 16:26)

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Water… Walking or Sinking

by Rev. Fr. L. X. Jerome S. J.  

 

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

 

Above the office door of the Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung (1875-1961), hung a stone plaque inscribed with the words: Called or Not, God is Present. Jung’s sign encapsulated in a few words what the joint testaments of Judaism and Christianity have put forth in hundreds of thousands of words for centuries, namely, that the transcendent almighty God chooses to be with humankind, to commune with us, to love and move among us, to be near, to abide, to be present whether called or not, in peace, as well as in panic.

God is so much part of our lives like our own body that we tend to take His presence for granted, as we do with our body. When we are wrapped in our joy or pain, we miss God’s presence so easily. Today’s Readings from I Kings as well as the Gospel of Matthew invite us to reflect on how easily and how often we miss SEEING God.

 

Elijah, the prophet, had challenged the prophets of Baal and Asherah on Mount Carmel, proved them wrong and exterminated them. Hence, Elijah had incurred the wrath of Jezebel, the queen and ran away from the country. The first part of chapter 19 of I Kings gives us a picture of Elijah who preferred to die rather than live in fear. God invited him to his mountain, Horeb. Our reading today is a sequel to this episode, where God invites Elijah to come out of the cave to meet Him. (1 Kings 19:11-13)

When Elijah saw the powerful wind, earthquake and fire he would have felt happy and secure that his God had come with might to fight his cause against the queen. His expectation proved wrong. God came in a gentle whisper. To belie our expectation is the beauty of God – the God of surprises.

 

The same lesson is reiterated in today’s Gospel as well. The miracle of Jesus walking on the water is given in three gospels – Matthew, Mark and John. The opening lines of today’s gospel are quite significant.

Matthew 14: 22-23

Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.

This is a sequel to the miracle in which Jesus fed more than 5000 people. Soon after that miracle, Jesus was very keen on dismissing the crowd and forcing his disciples to leave the place. Why this hurry? John’s gospel gives us a clue.

John 6: 14-15

After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.

 

The Israelites who had been under the tyranny of the Romans were very much attracted by the words of Jesus. Now they had seen him work a major miracle. (Remember… feeding the multitude is the ONLY miracle that is recorded six times – twice in Matthew and Mark and once in Luke and John.) In an over-enthusiastic crowd even a tiny spark is enough to create a huge frenzy. I guess someone in the crowd must have shouted: “This is the King we have been waiting for!” or some such thing. Knowing how a crowd can be swayed by emotions, Jesus wanted to leave that place. He wanted to be by himself in order to pray!

 

The closing line of the gospel passage quoted above (John 6:15) goes like this: Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself. The word ‘again’ is noteworthy. Jesus was going to the mountain by himself again and again. What for? Not just to escape from the crowds… but to spend time with himself and with his Father. To pray, to reflect, to regain perspective on his otherwise busy life. If only our leaders – political, religious leaders – follow Jesus, at least in this regard? A wishful thinking, indeed!

 

Jesus did not lock himself up in prayer. He came down to help his disciples struggling with wind and waves. He came to them walking on the sea. This was a symbolic act. In many world religions the sea stands for a power usually in opposition to the divine. Monsters abide in the sea. Many divine beings are depicted as conquering this power.

Jesus walked on the sea to prove a point: When the people offered him an earthly crown, he declined it. His mission was not to fight the Roman empire alone. His mission was to fight all the evil powers.

 

The disciples failed to recognise Jesus walking on the waters. Not only that… they mistook him for a ghost. When our whole attention is on the troubles around us, we tend to miss God or mistake God for a ghost! Here is a lovely poem, titled ‘Footsteps’ by Jennifer Jill Schwirzer about how mistaken our perception is while we are in trouble:

 

I had a dream last night of footsteps in the sand

God and I were walking—it must have been hand in hand

For there were two pairs of footsteps in the sand

His footsteps and my footsteps in the sand

And in the dream I had, we walked the peaceful shore

It seemed that we would walk that way, hand in hand forevermore

Two pairs of footsteps in the sand,

His footsteps and my footsteps in the sand.

And then the crashing waves of a wild and angry sea

Broke upon the shoreline of my life

Things I could not control were like churning, turning tides

And angry winds of strife

And when I was almost beaten and needed a helping hand.

There was just one pair of footsteps in the sand.

“You stayed when all was peaceful, but then where did you go?

Perhaps You’d had enough

When fortune fled and friends too, but oh, I needed You

When times got so rough.”

And then He said so gently as patient fathers do:

“When trouble stormed the shoreline, my child, I carried you.”

I had a dream last night of footsteps in the sand

Jesus bore my burden when I could no longer stand

One pair of footsteps in the sand

Just His pair of footsteps in the sand.

 

While Mark and John round off this miracle with Jesus approaching the disciples and getting them ashore, Matthew has one more interesting addition – that of Peter trying to walk on the sea. The impetuous Peter! “If it is you, Lord, then let me also walk on the sea like you.” We can hear the child in Peter speaking. Jesus was game for it. He says, “Come.” Peter leaves the security of the boat and his friends to venture into the unknown. Soon, he is engulfed by terror and begins to sink.

 

In one of the websites, the homilist gives this interesting insight. Jesus could have easily calmed the storm and the waves before asking Peter to step out of the boat. But He did not. That is what happens in life. We cannot wait till every storm and every wave has subsided. We need to step out of the boat, out of the familiar to the unfamiliar, fixing our gaze on Jesus. Peter began his adventure well, looking only at Jesus. But soon his attention was drawn to the waves and the storm and his own ability or inability to cope... He lost his footing. He began to sink.

 

Peter sinking in water is quite unthinkable, especially when we know that he had been a fisherman all his life and he must have seen quite a few storms in the Lake of Gennesaret. Hence, why did he sink? Perhaps to let us understand that our own skills and efforts may desert us occasionally. A similar thought is shared by Fr Ron Rolheiser when he reflects on this episode under the title –

WALKING ON WATER AND SINKING LIKE A STONE:

Faith isn’t something you ever simply achieve. It’s not something that you ever nail down as a fait accompli. Faith works this way: Some days you walk on water and other days you sink like a stone.  Faith invariably gives way to doubt before it again recovers its confidence, then it loses it again.

We see this graphically illustrated in the famous story in the gospels of Peter walking on water… Peter is immediately buoyed up in his faith and asks Jesus to let him too walk on the water. Jesus invites him to do so and Peter gets out of the boat confidently and begins to walk on the water. But then, realizing what he was doing and the incredulous nature of it, he immediately starts to sink, cries out for help, and Jesus has to reach out and rescue him from drowning.

What we see illustrated here are two things that lie at the heart of our experience of faith, namely, that faith (literally) has its ups and downs and that it works best when we don’t confuse it with our own powers.

 

Fr Rolheiser closes his reflections with an anecdote:

Donald Nichol, in his book, Holiness, shares a story of a British missionary working in Africa. At one point, early on in his stay there, the missionary was called upon to mediate a dispute between two tribes. He had no preparation for this, was naïve, and totally out of his depth. But he gave himself over to the task in faith and, surprisingly, reconciled the two tribes. Afterwards, buoyed by this success, he began to fancy himself as mediator and began to present himself as an arbiter of disputes. But now, however, his efforts were invariably unhelpful. Here’s the irony: when he didn’t know what he was doing, but trusted solely in God, he was able to walk on water; as soon as he began to wrap himself in the process, he sank like a stone. Faith works like that: We can walk on water only as long as we don’t think that we are doing it with our own strength.

 

This Sunday we receive these invitations from God:

Come out of the security of the cave and meet Me in unexpected ways… Step out of the security of the boat and come. If you focus on Me, you can walk on water even when it turns into a stormy wave!

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Transfiguration… Disfiguration

 

The Feast of the Transfiguration

by Rev. Fr. L. X. Jerome S. J.  

 

It must be one of the strange and sad accidents of history that the first atomic bomb was dropped on August 6, which marks the annual Feast of the Transfiguration. We can be sure that Harry Truman (the then President of the U.S.) and his team would not have given any thought to this Feast, while planning their ‘disfiguration’ of the human family. This accidental coming together of Transfiguration and ‘disfiguration’ invites us to reflect on these two events and draw lessons for our life.

The phrases used in the Transfiguration narrative (Matthew 17: 1-9) seem uncannily, or, eerily similar to the phrases used by those who survived the bomb. Matthew uses phrases like ‘shining like a sun’, ‘bright cloud’ and a ‘voice from the cloud’. Hiroshima survivors have spoken of ‘sun falling to the ground’, ‘bright cloud’, ‘roar like thunder’ etc. While the light, cloud and voice of the Transfiguration brought hope to those who witnessed it, the light, cloud and noise of the atom bomb brought destruction and despair not only to those who witnessed it, but for future generations as well.

 

Every year, at the beginning of the month of August, haunting memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, flood our memory. The gory details of this human massacre are well-known. So, let us not go over those statistics. They can only feed our curiosity. Has Hiroshima and Nagasaki become only museum pieces to be visited once a year or, are they schools where we can learn a lesson or two?

I am afraid that even Japan is treating this tragedy as a ‘treasured museum piece’. Why do I say this? If Japan had treated Hiroshima and Nagasaki as schools, then ‘Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster’ (March 2011) would not have happened. After Fukushima nuclear threat, Japan began to close down its atomic plants one by one. I was so happy about it that I announced this news in Vatican Radio with full gusto. Unfortunately, my happiness was short-lived. Japanhas begun reopening its atomic power plants once again!

Sadly, Japan as well as the whole world are madly… MADLY… in love with nuclear energy still. On a day like this, we need to focus on our tragic-romance with nuclear energy. The cenotaph at the Hiroshima Peace Park is inscribed with an ambiguous sentence: "Let all the souls here rest in peace; this mistake shall not be repeated." (Wikipedia) But from Hiroshima to Fukushima nuclear mistakes have been repeated – all over the world!

 

Why are mistakes repeated? There could be hundreds of reasons. But, I wish to focus on two of them. The first is… when mistakes are covered up with falsehood and made to look like the right thing, they tend to be repeated. The mistake of the U.S. was well covered up. Delayed information, distorted information, downright lies accompanied the dropping of the atomic bombs. As I was going through many details of this historic tragedy, something struck me hard. When the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, it was 8.16 a.m. on August 6th in Japan. It was still night in the U.S. and the people there were asleep. One can see that this nation is still struggling to wake up from this sleep and find out the real truth.

 

After the Hiroshima bombing, Truman issued a statement announcing the use of the new weapon. He stated, "We may be grateful to Providence" that the German atomic bomb project had failed, and that the United Statesand its allies had "spent two billion dollars on the greatest scientific gamble in history—and won". (Wikipedia – Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) When we read this statement, we wonder what Truman or the U.S. had really ‘won’. This brings to mind the famous saying of Jesus: For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? (Mt. 16:26)

 

It is interesting to see that Jesus made this famous statement just before the Transfiguration when he told his disciples, for the first time, what type of death was awaiting him. Then he went on to challenge his disciples to take up their crosses as well. In this discourse of challenges, he also posed the great question of gaining the whole world and losing one’s life. This question of Jesus had enlightened hundreds of Saints down the centuries (including St Ignatius of Loyola and St Francis Xavier) to look at life’s achievements in proper perspective. When we read the triumphant statements of President Truman, these words of Jesus come to our minds.

 

When mistakes are not covered up in lies, we can surely learn from those mistakes, since truth will always set us free. But, unfortunately, every government in the world is dishing out lies as far as nuclear warheads are concerned. As if the threat of nuclear warheads is not enough, every country is moving towards nuclear plants. On this front as well, lots of lies have been told about the safety of a nuclear plant and about the different accidents that have happened in nuclear plants. Hence, here is my simple (you may call this ‘naive’) conclusion: Nuclear energy can thrive on the seedbed of lies!

If you wish to read more truth, kindly read the news feature: HIROSHIMA, NAGASAKI BOMBINGS WERE AVOIDABLE by David Krieger, President, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. (IDN-InDepthNews – August 3, 2012)

 

Why are we so madly in love with nuclear energy? Is there no other alternative? I am not a scientist and hence my answer to this question cannot be scientific. But I am a believer. My belief says that our world can survive, in fact, flourish in safer environment if we depend on other natural sources of energy – wind, water, sunlight… My belief says that the universe is designed in such a way that it can sustain itself when we are able to tap the natural resources appropriately. The catch words are: tap and appropriately… Unfortunately, our present generation has not tapped natural sources of energy but has exploited them indiscriminately!

Our natural sources of energy can surely sustain the whole of humanity, provided we decide to satisfy our need and not our greed (Mahatma Gandhi). Since nature could not satisfy our mad rush for more and MORE, we looked for artificial sources of energy. Look, where we have landed up… We have landed on a planet that is waiting to explode any time.

 

Our unbridled greed has exploited mother earth and we are leaving a ‘tattered globe’ for the future generation. This brings us back to the event of the Transfiguration.

When Jesus was transfigured on Mount Tabor his face shone like the sun, and when he came down the mountain a little boy was healed — a boy who had been thrown into fire and water by a demon. When “Little Boy” (the name given the bomb) shone like the sun over Hiroshima, thousands of little boys and girls were burned in atomic fire and poisoned by radioactive rain. The bombing of Hiroshima is the anti-Transfiguration. (Hiroshima: An Anti-Transfiguration - Brian Zahnd)

 

One of the little girls who died a slow death due to radioactive rain, is Sadako Sasaki. Here is an extract on Sadako as given in Sadako Sasaki’s Cranes for Peace:

Sadako Sasaki was two years old when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Ten years later, she was diagnosed with leukemia, and informed that she had only one year to live. Sadako’s friends reminded her of a Japanese legend: that if you make a thousand paper cranes, you get one wish. Sadako spent the remainder of her life folding paper cranes – but had only reached 644 when she died. After her death, her friends continued making her paper cranes, and raised the money to build a monument in her honour. Now, children from all over the world fold paper cranes to be placed beneath her statue in commemoration of the atrocities suffered in Hiroshima.

 

We are aware that paper cranes don’t fly. But the dreams and desires of thousands of children who made those paper cranes can fly beyond human made boundaries and create a world without war. May Sadako and millions of children, killed in senseless wars, plead before the throne of God to bring lasting peace to our war-torn planet. May the paper cranes fly high!

 

At the scene of the Transfiguration, a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” Our Heavenly Father extends the same invitation to all of us. If we are willing to listen to Jesus, more challenges await us, challenges that call for a self-sacrificing life. On the other hand, if we prefer a self-centred life, we need to support our selfishness by listening to the lies of the ‘merchants of death’. We shall be forced to build temples for our ‘atomic demons’!

 

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"Have we lost our hearing?"

                                                                                                                                                                 by Rev. Fr. L. X. Jerome S. J.

 

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time

 

Once there was a man who dared God to speak.

"Burn the bush like you did for Moses, God and I will follow.

Collapse the walls like you did for Joshua, God and I will fight.

Still the waves like you did on Galilee, God and I will listen."

And so the man went and sat by a bush, near a wall close to the sea and waited for God to speak.

 

And God heard the man , So God answered.

He sent fire, not for the bush, but for a church.

He brought down a wall, not of brick, but of sin.

He stilled a storm, not of the sea, but of a soul.

 

And God waited for the man to respond.

And he waited ...

And waited ...

And waited...

 

But because the man was looking at bushes, not hearts; bricks, not lives; seas and not souls, he decided that God had done nothing.

Finally he looked at God and asked, "Have you lost your power?"

And God looked at him and said, "Have you lost your hearing?"

 

(A story by Max Lucado, from A Gentle Thunder : Hearing God Through the Storm)

 

"Have you lost your hearing?" is the question posed by Jesus in today’s Gospel (Matthew 13: 1-23). Jesus poses this question as an invitation or as a warning: “He who has ears, let him hear.” (Mt 13:9) All of us know that the mere fact of having ears, does not guarantee hearing. We know of people who have eyes, ears and mouth but, unfortunately, do not have the ability to see, hear or speak. Jesus is not talking about these unfortunate ones. His concern for them was special. Here Jesus is concerned about us who have the physical ear as well as the capacity to hear and yet do not wish to hear! He quotes Prophet Isaiah who was also concerned about such ‘deliberately deaf’ people.

Matthew 13: 11,14-15

And Jesus answered them, “With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says:

‘For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.’”

 

Our decision to ‘turn a deaf ear’ can come from different situations. For example, in our modern day world, we are so saturated with ‘noise’ (meaning, the flood of information that reaches us every day via our tools of communication), that we ‘switch off’ and find shelter in our isolated, ‘sound-proof’ self. Having got accustomed to protecting ourselves from this onslaught of ‘noises’, we tend to use the same technique to the Word of God, especially when it challenges or threatens our cozy, comfortable self! This is the warning given by Jesus and Isaiah.

 

Let us try and heed to this warning of Jesus and open our ears to listen to the Parable of the Sower. This being the first Parable recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, there is a discussion on the reason and relevance of parables. “Why do you speak to them in parables?” was the question addressed to Jesus in today’s Gospel. He did not give any lengthy treatise on God and His Kingdom. Most of his teachings have been clothed in stories, imageries and parables. The religious leaders of his times presented God as a cold, distant God represented by the ‘stony laws’. Jesus, on the other hand, brought this God close to the people, as a loving Father, through His stories. To understand why Jesus spoke in parables, we turn to Fr Anthony de Mello, S.J. In his book ‘One Minute Wisdom’, there is a lovely story:

The Master gave his teaching in parables and stories, which his disciples listened to with pleasure - and occasional frustration, for they longed for something deeper.

The Master was unmoved. To all their objections he would say, "You have yet to understand, my dears, that the shortest distance between a human being and Truth is a story."

Another time he said, "Do not despise the story. A lost gold coin is found by means of a penny candle; the deepest truth is found by means of a simple story."

 

From this Sunday onwards till the Feast of Christ the King in November, we shall be journeying through 20 Sundays of the Ordinary Time in the liturgical cycle. Of these 20 Sundays, 10 Sundays present us with 10 parables of Jesus recorded in Matthew. We begin this ‘parable series’ with one of the most famous parables of Matthew - the Parable of the Sower.

When I use a phrase ‘the most famous’, I am conscious of the danger it entails. Anything ‘famous’ tends to become ‘ordinary’ due to over-exposure. We tend to feel that ‘we have seen that and heard that’! The famous quotes and parables of Jesus are no exception to this danger. As if forestalling the danger, resulting from this ‘taken-for-granted’ attitude to the words of Jesus, He gives the famous warning: He who has ears, let him hear.” Jesus wants us to pay attention… But, attention to what? The sower, the seed or the soil?

Traditionally we have focused almost exclusively on the terrains where the seed falls, in order to look at what is our attitude as we listen to the Gospel. However it is important to pay attention to the sower and his way of sowing.

 

Jesus begins the parable with a matter-of-fact statement : A sower went out to sow. The sower scatters seeds ‘along the path’, ‘on rocky ground’ and ‘upon thorns’. This action of the sower brings up the question: Was he careless or was he generous? If we reflect on this action with the idea that the seed represents God’s word, then it is better to attribute ‘generosity’ rather than ‘carelessness’ as the intention of the sower in ‘scattering seeds everywhere’.

That’s how Jesus sowed his message. They saw him go out every morning to announce the Good News of God. He sowed his Word among the simple people who welcomed it, and also among the Scribes and the Pharisees (hard rocky ground) who rejected it. Jesus was keen on scattering seeds to those surrounded by thorns of sin and sickness. He never got tired.

 

By depicting the reckless generosity of the sower, Jesus says that those of us who are over-cautious and calculative in sowing the seeds only on well-ploughed and watered lands, (in other words, only ‘worthy’ lands) are doing a disservice to the word of God. With all the available lessons on efficiency from the management gurus, we tend to measure our every effort in sowing God’s word. In spite of all our caution, God’s word still manages to fulfil its mission. This is ascertained in today’s first reading from Prophet Isaiah:

Isaiah 55: 10-11

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.

 

Thank God, the word of God does not depend on our plans! In fact, the reckless generosity with which Jesus scattered God’s word has been followed by many generous followers. Let me finish these reflections with a lovely story that talks of how generosity pays:

There was once a farmer who grew award-winning corn. Each year he entered his corn in the state fair where it won first prize. One year a newspaper reporter interviewed him and learned the farmer’s strategy for growing winning corn. What was it? Simply this: the farmer shared his best seed corn with his neighbours.

“How can you afford to share your best seed corn with your neighbours when they are entering corn in competition with yours each year?” the reporter asked.

“Why” said the farmer, “don’t you know? The wind picks up pollen from the ripening corn and swirls it from field to field. If my neighbours grow inferior corn, cross-pollination will steadily degrade the quality of my corn. If I am to grow good corn, I must help my neighbours grow good corn.”

Source: reported in James Bender How to Talk Well (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1994)

 

Sowing the seed ‘along the path’, ‘on rocky ground’ and ‘upon thorns’ is a real challenge. The challenge becomes tougher when we are asked not only to sow on the fertile ground under our care, but also share good seeds with our neighbours! May we open our eyes and ears as we journey in the parables of Jesus in the following weeks!  

A final note would be to break the narrow view of ‘sowing the seed’ as ‘preaching the word of God’. Sowing the seed is more often and more effectively done by the way each one of us lives God’s word in our lives. That way, this parable does not refer to the sower as those who ‘preach’, but all of us who ‘practice’!

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Soothing, yet challenging invitation

by Rev. Fr. L. X. Jerome S. J. 


14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

 

Apollo 13 was the seventh manned mission in the Apollo space program and the third intended to land on the Moon. The craft was launched on April 11, 1970, from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, but the lunar landing was aborted after an oxygen tank exploded two days later, thus bringing to a premature end to the lunar mission. With their oxygen almost gone, their electrical system out, their spaceship plunging toward lunar orbit, it appeared that the astronauts would be marooned hundreds of thousands of miles from the Earth. Despite great hardship caused by the limited power, the crew returned safely to Earth on April 17, 1970, six days after launch.

 

The mission was commanded by James Lovell with John Swigert and Fred Haise as the team members. The efforts of the three astronauts were duly acknowledged. In a news conference, Lovell was asked, "Were you worried?" Such an obvious question drew snickers. But then Lovell gave a surprising answer. "No, not really." he said. "You see, worry is a useless emotion. I was too busy fixing the problem to worry about it. As long as I had one card left to play, I played it."

 

All of us would agree with Lovell’s statement that ‘worry is a useless emotion. Still, we spend quite a lot of time worrying. To all of us who tend to accumulate worries, Jesus gives a challenging invitation:  “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) These words of Jesus have given millions of people, down these 20 centuries, courage and strength to face the burdens of life.

When we hear these words today, they sound more like a ‘spiritual-pacifier’ than real life solution. We seem to think that there are many ways to get rid of our ‘heaviness’ – be it physical, mental or psychological. We, the so-called grown-ups, seem to think that we have better solutions to get rid of stress than the promise of Jesus. As if knowing our line of thought, Jesus, in the first part of today’s Gospel, prefaces his simple, soothing, and yet challenging invitation with words of caution:

At that time Jesus declared, “I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes; yea, Father, for such was thy gracious will.” (Mt. 11: 25). This is another form of the caution given elsewhere by Jesus that ‘unless we become like children, we cannot enter the Kingdom of God’ (Mt. 18:3). We seem to place more trust in the ways suggested by the world to conquer our burdens.

 

The world offers many so-called remedies to the problem of stress: - Get away - Run away - Fly away - Take a pill to ease your nerves - Take a drink to drown your sorrows - Take a shot to kill the pain - Get drunk, take drugs, sleep a lot.  But the truth is… most of them don’t work. How misleading the world can be! Here is a parable:

Have you heard about the farmer who went to a government bureaucrat specializing in animal health? The farmer sought help from the “expert” because ten of his chickens had suddenly died. The government expert instructed the farmer to give aspirin to all the surviving chickens. Two days later, however, the farmer returned. Twenty more chickens had died. What should he do now? The expert said quickly: “Give all the rest castor oil.” Two days later, the farmer returned a third time and reported 30 more dead chickens. The government expert now strongly recommended penicillin. Two days later a sad farmer showed up. All the rest of his chickens had now died. They were all gone. “What a shame,” said the expert, “I have lot more remedies!”

 

As against the false, quick-fix solutions offered by the world, Jesus gives us a firm promise. He does not tell us to run away from the problems. He does not promise a magic touch by which all our worries would vanish. He promises ‘rest’ and his own presence in our stress-filled life.

The imagery of the yoke which he uses in this context is a master stroke. Here are the words of Jesus: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Mt. 11: 29-30)

The words of Jesus, “Take my yoke upon you…” lead us into deeper reflection. Let us first think of the ‘yoke’. As we know, the yoke is used to align two oxen for the purpose of ploughing. The yoke that sits on the neck of these two oxen, though painful, is a useful instrument for a productive task. In using this imagery, Jesus is calling us to face pain for a productive purpose.

 

When Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you…” he seems to be saying two different things. He may be saying “Take the yoke I have prepared for you” or “Become a partner in my yoke, namely, the yoke I am already carrying”.

William Barclay makes the following statement in his commentary on this passage of Matthew: “There is a legend that Jesus made the best ox-yokes in all Galilee, and that from all over the country men came to him to buy the best yokes that skill could make. In those days as now, shops had their signs above the door; and it has been suggested that the sign above the door of the carpenter's shop in Nazareth may well have been: ‘My yokes fit well’. It may well be that Jesus is here using a picture from the carpenter's shop in Nazareth where he had worked throughout the silent years.” Keeping this commentary of Barclay in mind, we can interpret the words of Jesus ‘Take my yoke upon you’, as “Take the yoke I have prepared for you. It will fit you well”.

 

The second interpretation seems to make more sense to me, namely, Jesus is inviting us to ‘become a partner in the yoke he is already carrying’. Jesus has already taken this yoke on himself and asks us to join him. We are in this together – Jesus and us! That is the reason Jesus says with so much assurance: For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Mt. 11: 30) Jesus knows that a sorrow (burden) shared is halved! 

 

To accept these words of Jesus we need to become like children. For a child, no burden is great when the parent is around. This child-like trust was evident in the life of Good Pope St John the XXIII. During the Second Vatican Council days, Pope St. John XXIII used to submit all his anxieties to God by this prayer every night: “Lord, Jesus, I’m going to bed. It's your Church. Take care of it!” 

The President Dwight David Eisenhower knew about that inner rest derived from submitting daily lives to God. He had it even while he was the leader of armed forces in World War II. His every decision during that awful conflict had monumental consequences. How did he deal with the pressure? He shared with his former pastor, Dean Miller, that he didn't try to carry his burden alone. Some nights when the strain became too great, Eisenhower would simply pray, "Lord, with your grace I've done the best I can. You take over until morning."

 

All of us are pilgrims on earth carrying our load of worries. We have a knack of gathering more and more burdens as we go along this earthly journey. When we consider the famous invitation of Jesus, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden…”, we can ask for two graces: First – that we may be able to distinguish between ‘necessary’ and ‘unnecessary’ burdens that we accumulate, so that we can ‘off-load’ unnecessary baggage sooner than later. Second – that we trust this invitation of Jesus not simply as a ‘spiritual-pacifier’ but as a more realistic solution. In addition, we pray that God gives us enough light to understand that Jesus is with us to share the burden! 

May we, like children, heed to the loving invitation of Christ with a heart filled with trust: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

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Christ, sitting on our lap

 

The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

 

Most of us would have received our First Holy Communion while in elementary school. At that time, either our Parish Priests or some kind-hearted Nuns would have helped us prepare for this great moment. Part of this preparation takes the form of the catechism class, usually filled with stories. If we have not out-grown these stories, we are blessed indeed! I do remember quite a few of these stories.

I do have very many lovely memories of the way Corpus Christi processions were held in my parish and, later, in other places during my Jesuit life. All these stories and all these memories fill my mind as I reflect on this Feast – the Feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.

This Feast is probably THE MOST SIGNIFICANT FEAST to tell us what God’s love is all about. While we are engulfed by love, the best response we can give is to let go… enjoy the experience. If one were to raise questions about love - the how and why of love, then we would almost lose love. Still, human mind is a workshop constantly churning out questions and we cannot avoid this. Let us try and answer some of the questions that creep into our minds about this Love Feast.

 

Last week when we reflected on the Feast of the Holy Trinity, we said: If at all we wish to understand the great mystery of the Holy Trinity, then we need to raise the proper questions. Not trying to understand the ‘how’ of the mystery, as St Augustine tried, but more in terms of the ‘why’ of the mystery of the Triune God.

Today again, it is much better to raise the ‘why’ question than the ‘how’ question. How is Christ present in the two species – bread and wine? Quite a few treatises have been written on this question. We shall turn our attention to the other question, namely, why is Christ present in bread and wine? Here is my simple answer to this question: First, bread and wine are the simple food of the Israelites, accessible to everyone, including the poor. Jesus wanted to be present in forms that were easily available to all. Second, once food is taken, it gets integrated as our own body and blood. As food is integrated in one’s body, Jesus would like to become integrated with human beings. These answers may not be considered a ‘treatise’; but it makes sense to me.

 

I guess it is better to leave theoretical explanations on this great Feast and get back to some of the inspiring incidents related to Christ’s Real Presence in the lives of great souls.

Fr Pedro Arrupe S.J., who was the Superior General of the Society of Jesus for fifteen years, narrates how he had personally met Jesus and decided to follow him.

Pedro was a brilliant student of medicine, winning first prizes in his studies at the University of Madrid… In October 1926, nineteen year old Pedro went to Lourdes as a volunteer. One day he accompanied the procession in front of the Grotto, walking beside a mother who was pushing a wheel-chair in which sat her 26 year old son, a polio victim, his body crippled and completely deformed…. Then the Bishop came with the Blessed Sacrament, and made the sign of the Cross with it over the boy. At that instant, the boy leapt from his chair completely cured.

Pedro said: “I returned to Madrid; the books kept falling from my hands. My fellow students asked me: ‘What’s happening to you? You seem dazed!’ Yes, I was dazed by the memory which upset me more each day; only the image of the Sacred Host raised in blessing and the paralyzed boy jumping up from his chair remained fixed in my heart”

Three months later Pedro gave up his medicine studies and entered the Novitiate of the Society of Jesus at Loyola, to a life of ‘distinguished service as a Jesuit’. (Hedwig Lewis S.J., - At Home with God)

 

The first atom bomb on August 6, 1945, destroyed Hiroshima. The Jesuit novitiate in a suburb of that city was one of the few buildings left standing, though all its doors and windows had been ripped off by the explosion. The novitiate was turned into a makeshift hospital. The chapel, half destroyed, was overflowing with the wounded, who were lying on the floor very near to one another, suffering terribly, twisted with pain.

In the midst of this broken humanity, the novice master, Fr Pedro Arrupe, celebrated Mass the very next day of the disaster. “I can never forget the terrible feelings I experienced when I turned toward them and said, ‘The Lord is with you’. I could not move. I stayed there as if paralyzed, my arms outstretched, contemplating this human tragedy… They were looking at me, eyes full of agony and despair as if they were waiting for some consolation to come from the altar. What a terrible scene!” (Hedwig Lewis S.J., - At Home with God)

 

St. Isaac Jogues, S.J. was a Jesuit priest, missionary and martyr, who travelled and worked among the Iroquois, Huron, and other Native populations in North America. During his missionary work in North America, he had a chance to escape from the cruel clutches of the native people and return to France. While there, he wanted to celebrate Mass. Under Church law of the time, the Blessed Sacrament could not be touched with any other finger except the thumb and the forefinger. Jogues was unable to follow this law after the loss of both these fingers due to the tortures he endured in Iroquois captivity. In order to celebrate Mass, he required a special dispensation from the Pope. He was granted a dispensation to say Mass by Pope Urban VIII. Pope Urban's judgement that "it would be shameful for a martyr of Christ not to drink the blood of Christ" renewed the zeal of Isaac to work among the Indians.

 

St Isaac Jogues, Fr Pedro Arrupe have been drawn to the Eucharistic Lord, not via lengthy theses, but via simple faith in the Real Presence of Christ. To achieve this level of holiness, one needs to become a child. Last week we saw how a child taught St Augustine how to approach the Triune God. This week, again, we learn from a child how the Eucharistic Lord is ever present with us. This child is four year old, chosen by Professor Leo Buscaglia (Love Doctor), for the best act of love.

Professor Buscaglia was asked to judge which child had shown the greatest love. The episodes of different children were presented to him. Leo chose a child of four years. Let us call him Prince.  What did Prince do?

A senior citizen (Let’s call him Robert) lived next to the house in which Prince lived. Robert, aged 85, had lost his wife the previous week. They had spent well over 50 years together. Robert sat in his easy chair one evening. Tears were rolling down his cheeks. Prince, who saw this from his house, walked up to Robert. Without saying a word, Prince climbed on to Robert’s lap and sat down. After 15 or 20 minutes, Prince came back home. His mother who was watching all this, asked Prince, “What did you tell grandpa when you were sitting on his lap?” Prince replied: “I said nothing. I just sat there to help him weep more.”

Professor Buscaglia decided that Prince had shown the greatest love.

 

Love, as we know, can be expressed in myriad ways… through words, deeds, gifts… The best way to show love is to be ‘present’ with someone. Prince did exactly that. Christ has done the same in choosing to be present in bread and wine. Let us set aside questions and theories about the Blessed Sacrament and try to experience the great love of Christ through this Sacrament. Let us celebrate the Loving, Abiding Presence of Christ in our lives!

 

Before we close, let us turn our attention to June 18, this Sunday, and June 20, coming Tuesday. Every year on June 20 we observe (I dare not say… ‘We celebrate’ since there is nothing to celebrate here!) World Refugee Day. This Sunday, which happens to be the third Sunday of June, we celebrate Father’s Day. The second Sunday of May and the third Sunday of June are celebrated as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

World Refugee Day, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day seem to have something in common, in as much as elderly Mothers and Fathers are made to live like refugees, cut off from their roots – either within the four walls of their own houses or in the home for the aged!

Isn’t a tragedy that Mothers and Fathers are assigned just two days in a year when they should be celebrated all through the year? Similarly, when millions of our brothers and sisters are tossed about in the stormy sea of violence as refugees day after day, what is the purpose of remembering them on just one day? Questions that pierce our hearts!     

 

May we celebrate the loving presence of the Eucharistic Lord, by making our presence and the presence of our near and dear ones, especially our aged parents, more meaningful in our families.   

 

 

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God is ‘essentially’ a family

 

The Holy Trinity Sunday

 

We have entered the ‘Ordinary Time’ of the liturgical year. This implies that we have been having a ‘special time’ till now in our liturgical cycle. Yes, right from the start of the Lenten season through the Easter Season we have had a special time. Today’s feast, the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity, is like a crowning event of this special season. This crowning feast does not warm our hearts like, say, the feast of Christmas or Easter. This feast seems more ‘intellectual’. When I think of the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity, I get more of the image of an international conference than a festive gathering.

 

The Holy Trinity is a mystery to be contemplated than a concept to be discussed. Most of us remember a very old and much-repeated story about St. Augustine, one of the intellectual giants of the Church. He was walking by the seashore one day, attempting to conceive of an intelligible explanation for the mystery of the Trinity. As he walked along, he saw a small boy on the beach, pouring seawater from a shell into a small hole in the sand. "What are you doing, my child?" asked Augustine. "I am trying to empty the sea into this hole," the boy answered with an innocent smile. "But that is impossible, my dear child,” said Augustine. The boy stood up, looked straight into the eyes of Augustine and replied, “What you are trying to do - comprehend the immensity of God with your small head - is even more impossible.” Then he vanished. The child was an angel sent by God to teach Augustine a lesson. Later, Augustine wrote: "You see the Trinity if you see love." According to him the Father is the lover, the Son is the loved one and the Holy Spirit is the personification of the very act of loving. This means that we can understand something of the mystery of the Holy Trinity more readily with the heart than with our feeble mind. Evagrius of Pontus, a Greek monk of the 4th century said: "God cannot be grasped by the mind. If God could be grasped, God would not be God."

 

Many of the deep realities of life and the world are there simply as a gift to be admired and a mystery to be contemplated than an idea to be dissected and labelled into packages. An incident from the life of Franklin D.Roosevelt (FDR), the well-known president of the U.S., is worth remembering here. FDR and one of his close friends, Bernard Baruch, talked late into the night one evening at the White House. At last, President Roosevelt suggested that they go out into the Rose Garden and look at the stars before going to bed. They went out and looked into the sky for several minutes, peering at a nebula with thousands of stars. Then the President said, "All right, I think we feel small enough now to go in and go to sleep." The wonder of the power and wisdom of God puts things in perspective for us humans. Being the President of the U.S.can easily turn an individual into a megalomaniac. FDR must have stayed sane by seeing himself in the proper perspective. How we wish some of the present Presidents and Prime Ministers of various countries learn this lesson of ‘proper perspective’ from FDR!

 

When we think of the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity, one is easily reminded of the famous quote from the Bible: "Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth." (Psalm 46:10) This brings to mind the famous saying of a great scientist: “The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as all serious endeavour in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is.” - Albert Einstein, The World As I See It (1949)

 

If at all we wish to ‘understand’ the great mystery of the Holy Trinity, then we need to raise the proper questions. Not trying to understand the ‘how’ of the mystery, as St Augustine tried, but more in terms of the ‘why’ of the Triune God. Why is our God a Triune God? To instil in us the simple but profound truth that relationships are very important, rather, they are the most important aspect of human life. The important question for us to ask today is: What does the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity tell us about the kind of God we worship and what does this say about the kind of people we should be?

 

God does not exist in isolated individualism but in a community of relationships. In other words, God is not a loner or a recluse. This means that a Christian in search of Godliness (Matthew 5:48) must shun every tendency to isolationism and individualism. If our God exists in a ‘family’, then our Christian roots begin with family bonding. This day calls us to examine our attitude to relationships in general and, in particular, our attitude towards family relationships. Quite often, our priorities get a bit topsy-turvy when we place more stress on wealth and fame than our relationships. We pray that the Triune God helps us to re-organise our priorities.

 

Last week we reflected on the Coming of the Holy Spirit on June 4, immediately followed by the World Environment Day on June 5. This week, the Feast of the Holy Trinity on June 11, is followed by the World Day Against Child Labour on June 12. Once again, we are staring at a day that cannot be celebrated right now. I wish we do have a chance to CELEBRATE this day when child labour is totally eradicated from the world.

I would like to reflect on the Feast of the Holy Trinity and the World Day Against Child Labour together. The Feast of God’s Family Day is followed by a day when we think of children suffering from lack of family love. The proximity of the Feast of the Holy Trinity and the World Day Against Child Labour, seems like a God-given chance for us to reflect on children who have to face a difficult childhood, children who do not have a childhood or lose their childhood very early in their lives.

 

The World Day Against Child Labour is an ILO (International Labour Organization) –sanctioned holiday for the purpose of raising awareness and activism to prevent child labour in both economic and military fields. It is currently held each June 12. The ILO created this observance in 2002 and it has been held annually since then. (Wikipedia)

It is painful to note that the world had taken 20 centuries to take note of a horrible crime committed against children. It is more painful to see that in the past few decades children are forcefully employed in the military. The adult world is already guilty of waging senseless wars. To add insult to injury, we have got children also involved in this insanity of the adults.

This day offers us another opportunity to seriously think of this problem and muster up enough courage to eradicate such a crime from the world. We pray that the Triune God, who, in essence, is a ‘family’, may give us the precious gifts of wisdom and courage to guide our children out of their slavery and help them re-enter the human family as their rightful place.

 

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The Holy Spirit moving over Creation

by Rev. Fr. L. X. Jerome S. J. 

 

Pentecost Sunday

 

Today, the Feast of the Pentecost, is celebrated on the fiftieth day after Easter. The word ‘Pentecost’ means the fiftieth day. In the last 50 days we have celebrated quite a few festivals, starting from Easter. We celebrated Divine Mercy Sunday, the Good Shepherd Sunday, Ascension Sunday and now Pentecost Sunday. Celebrations continue with the Holy Trinity Sunday next week and the Corpus Christi Sunday the week after. Whenever we use the word ‘celebrate’, we do have certain notions about it. How were the first Easter, Ascension and Pentecost – the core events of our Christian Faith – ‘celebrated’? Were they ‘celebrated’ at all? I wonder…

 

The commercial world would insist that the first Easter should have taken place in full splendor, with blaring trumpets and dazzling pyrotechnics. But, it was a non-event, judging by the standards of celebration set by the world. The first Ascension, once again, was a very quiet affair with Jesus spending quality moments with the disciples on a hillock, before being taken up into heaven. The first Pentecost too was simply the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Mother Mary and the disciples gathered in prayer in the upper room. These events are not even a pale shadow of what is defined as ‘celebration’ by the world.

 

The definition of ‘celebration’ according to the commercial world is pretty clear… Grand, Glamorous, Great, Gigantic… Even if there is nothing to celebrate about, the commercial world would invent reasons to celebrate. The frills are more important than the core in these celebrations. In most of these celebrations ‘what’ is celebrated is less important than the ‘how’ of it. When I think of these commercial celebrations, I am reminded of the famous Shakespearean line from Macbeth: ‘sound and fury signifying nothing’. Such celebrations are fleeting, leaving no lasting impact on the individual. Perhaps it leaves one empty!

 

Jesus and his disciples defined ‘celebrations’ in a totally different way. They were more interested in the ‘what’ of the event than the ‘how’ of the event. This ‘what’ left a lasting, life-long impression on the disciples. The ‘what’ of these celebrations has left a deep impression on human history for the past twenty centuries. They have become the tenets of our Christian Faith!

 

While talking of ‘celebrations’, we need to talk about ‘non-celebrations’ too. While the commercial world invents reasons for ‘celebrations’, we are sadly reminded of the darker side of the world, where there are issues that are seemingly impossible to celebrate. One such issue is the issue of our Environment. June 5, coming Monday, is the World Environment Day. Although we wish to ‘celebrate’ this Day, it has left us with anxious feelings.

On June 1, last Thursday, the President of the United States, Mr Donald Trump, said that his country was pulling out of the Climate Change accord reached in Paris in 2015. This is one more instance to show how powerful individuals can ‘play God’ and can make or break our planet! Such decisions puts interests of individuals or specific groups over and above the care of our Common Home – the Planet! (Laudato Si)

 

It is significant that this year the Feast of Pentecost is followed by the World Environment Day. The Bible, in its opening lines introduces us to the Holy Spirit saying, that “the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:2) The Holy Spirit is the prime-mover in the creation history. Human beings have pushed aside the Spirit of Creation from the face of the earth and have put themselves as creators.

 

The World Environment Day invites us to look at ourselves as creatures living in harmony with other created beings. Every year the World Environment Day is observed (I am hesitant to say ‘celebrated’) on June 5. It was the day that the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment began in Stockholm in 1972. Although the World Environment Day, established in 1972, is completing 45 years of its existence, the human family has not treated our environment as a 45 year adult would! We have not made much progress in learning how to protect our environment. 25 years back, a 13 year old girl tried to teach the world some lessons. The Earth Summit 1992 held in Rio, Brasil was swept away by Severn Cullis-Suzuki, a 13 year old girl from Canada. The six minutes talk that she gave in the summit is still doing enough rounds on the internet. The full text is available on: http://ssjothiratnam.com/?p=747

 

Here are some excerpts from Severn Suzuki’s talk:

 

“Hello, I'm Severn Suzuki speaking for E.C.O. - The Environmental Children's Organisation. We are a group of twelve and thirteen-year-olds from Canada trying to make a difference… We raised all the money ourselves to come five thousand miles to tell you adults you must change your ways. Coming here today, I have no hidden agenda. I am fighting for my future…

 

I am afraid to go out in the sun now because of the holes in the ozone. I am afraid to breathe the air because I don't know what chemicals are in it.  I used to go fishing in Vancouver with my dad until just a few years ago we found the fish full of cancers…  Did you have to worry about these little things when you were my age?

All this is happening before our eyes and yet we act as if we have all the time we want and all the solutions. I'm only a child and I don't have all the solutions, but I want you to realise, neither do you!

  • You don't know how to fix the holes in our ozone layer.
  • You don't know how to bring salmon back up a dead stream.
  • You don't know how to bring back an animal now extinct.
  • And you can't bring back forests that once grew where there is now desert.

If you don't know how to fix it, please stop breaking it!

 

In my country (Canada), we make so much waste, we buy and throw away, buy and throw away, and yet northern countries will not share with the needy. Even when we have more than enough, we are afraid to lose some of our wealth, afraid to share.

Two days ago here in Brazil, we were shocked when we spent some time with some children living on the streets. And this is what one child told us: "I wish I was rich and if I were, I would give all the street children food, clothes, medicine, shelter and love and affection." If a child on the street who has nothing, is willing to share, why are we who have everything still so greedy? I can't stop thinking that these children are my age, that it makes a tremendous difference where you are born, that I could be one of those children living in the Favellas of Rio; I could be a child starving in Somalia; a victim of war in the Middle East or a beggar in India.

I'm only a child yet I know if all the money spent on war was spent on ending poverty and finding environmental answers, what a wonderful place this earth would be!

 

At school, even in kindergarten, you teach us to behave in the world. You teach us:

  • not to fight with others,
  • to work things out,
  • to respect others,
  • to clean up our mess,
  • not to hurt other creatures
  • to share - not be greedy.

Then why do you go out and do the things you tell us not to do?

 

Do not forget why you're attending these conferences, who you're doing this for -- we are your own children. You are deciding what kind of world we will grow up in. Parents should be able to comfort their children by saying "everything's going to be alright", "we're doing the best we can" and "it's not the end of the world". But I don't think you can say that to us anymore. Are we even on your list of priorities? My father always says "You are what you do, not what you say."

Well, what you do makes me cry at night. You grown ups say you love us. I challenge you, please make your actions reflect your words. Thank you for listening.”

 

One of the most powerful lines from this speech was: “If you don't know how to fix it, please stop breaking it!” If only we could listen to our future generations and stop breaking the universe, the environment and the human family… If we cannot leave a wholesome universe for our next generation, let us at least leave a broken world instead of a completely devastated one for them!

Warning bells do ring now and then about this impending devastation… the last one being from Fukushima, Japan. The earthquake and the tsunami in Japan were loud warning bells indeed. But, the consequent fear of leakage of the atomic radiation is a warning we cannot afford to ignore.

The theme for the World Environment Day 2017 is: “Connecting People to Nature”!

 

We pray that the Holy Spirit comes down in a special way to renew the face of the earth and help us connect with nature, so that we can truly celebrate both the Feast of the Pentecost as the World Environment Day meaningfully!

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First Centenary of the Apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima
by Rev. Fr. L. X. Jerome S. J.

 

5th Sunday of Easter

 

May 13, this Saturday, we celebrated the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima. More than that, this year was the First Centenary of the Apparitions of Our Lady in Fatima. Hence, Pope Francis made a flying visit to the Shrine of Fatima this Friday and Saturday.

Centenary celebrations come only once in 100 years. The next Centenary of Fatima Shrine will be celebrated in the year 2117. I don’t plan to be stay on till then. Hence, I wish to reflect on this Shrine and what Our Lady of Fatima wishes to teach us today.

 

The first European War, also known as World War I broke out in 1914. Wikipedia says: World War I … began on July 28, 1914 and lasted until November 11, 1918. The war lasted exactly four years, three months and 14 days. Most of the fighting was in Europe, but soldiers from many other countries took part, and it changed the colonial empires of the European powers. Before World War II began in 1939, World War I was called the Great War, or the 'war to end all wars'.

In fact, this war, instead of ending all wars, inaugurated many other wars, including World War II and also, as Pope Francis says, World War III ‘fought piece-meal’ in the world today.

Although I am not a great fan of statistics, I must record here that this war resulted in the death of more than 9 million soldiers and more than 7 million citizens. Pope Benedict XV branded this as a ‘useless massacre’ and ‘the suicide of civilized Europe’.

Pope Benedict XV, who was elected on 3 September 1914, a month after the outbreak of World War I, tried to stop the war but in vain. The first public speech Pope Benedict XV gave after the Conclave which elected him as Pius X’s successor on 3 September, marked the start of his mission to end hostilities, convincing the great powers to resolve pending questions through dialogue and negotiation. This was the spirit of his first four public wartime speeches. On 8 September 1914 Benedict XV “repeated his predecessor’s call to people to pray for an end to the war,” urging powers to put down their weapons. But his calls fell on deaf ears. (Vatican Insider)

 

When the war was raging, Our Lady appeared to three shepherds in Fatima on May 13, 1917 with the same appeal to the people, namely, to pray for peace. When we think of Our Lady appearing in Fatima, our minds naturally think of the apparitions in Lourdes, Guadalupe and Velankanni. When we put all these apparitions together, the first thing that strikes us is the fact that Our Lady chose very, very simple people to become his messengers.

If Our Lady wanted to drive home the message of peace in the world, she should have appeared to the European leaders, or, to the Church leaders and through them spread the message of peace. But, she chose the poor, illiterate shepherds. She knew well that only the poor, and pure of heart can see the divine with ease (Cf. Mt. 5: 3,8).

 

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, just before leaving for Fatima, gave an interview to Vatican Radio where he spoke about the choice made by Mary:

“The Virgin of the Magnificat, the Lady of the Rosary, did not appear to the rich, did not appear to the powerful, did not appear to the influential people but appeared to children. We could, in a sense, consider them 'the last of society, to use the terminology of the Pope, almost the "scraps" of society. The Madonna of the Magnificat gave Fatima Shepherds a counter-current message. We were in war time, so the discourse was one of hate, revenge, hostility, and clash - "the useless massacre" of Benedict XV; Madonna, on the other hand, speaks of love, speaks of forgiveness, speaks of the ability to sacrifice oneself and to make oneself a gift to others. So, a total reversal of the values ​​that were, at that time, prevailing in society.”  

 

Mary made this choice since she was totally in tune with the choices made by God the Father as well as her Son Jesus. God chose simple shepherds like Moses and David to lead His people. Jesus chose simple shepherds near Bethlehem to become the messengers of His Birth. (We reflected on this last week!) Jesus went on to choose simple fishermen and a tax collector to become his Apostles. Hence, it is no surprise that Our Lady chose simple people to receive important messages for humanity.

 

Of the three shepherds – Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta – chosen by Our Lady, Francisco and Jacinta were canonized on May 13, by Pope Francis at the Shrine of Fatima. The miracle that helped in this canonization process is the miraculous cure of Lucas, a boy from Brazil. His father João Batista, along with his wife Lucila Yurie met the journalists on May 11, Thursday, in Fatima. In recounting the story of their son’s healing in the face of almost certain death, João Batista and his wife Lucila Yurie could not hold back tears. Here is a report from Catholic News Agency – CNA/EWTN:

“On March 3, 2013, before 8:00 pm, our son Lucas, who was playing with his little sister Eduarda, fell out of a window from a height of 20 feet. He was five years old,” related the boy's father.

“His head hit the ground and he sustained a very serious injury, which caused a loss of brain tissue,” Batista said during the press conference at the Fatima Shrine.

Teetering between life and death, “he was given medical care in our city, Juranda, and given the severity of his condition, he was transferred to the hospital in Campo Mourao, Parana.”

“When we got there, Lucas was in a deep coma. His heart stopped twice, and they performed an emergency operation.”

It was at that moment that “we began to pray to Jesus and Our Lady of Fatima, to whom we have a great devotion,” Batista said.

“The next day we called the Carmelite convent of Campo Mouro to ask the sisters to pray for the boy,” he said. But the community was observing a period of silence, and so the message did not get to them.

 

As the days went by, Lucas became worse, his father recounted. On March 6, the doctors considered transferring him to another hospital, since their facility did not have the necessary care for a boy of his age.

“They told us that the chance of the boy surviving was low, and if he did survive, his recovery would be very slow,” likely dealing with “severe cognitive disabilities or even remaining in a vegetative state.”

On March 7, Batista said, “we called the convent again.” That time, they were able to get their prayer request to the sisters.

“One of them ran to the relics of Blessed Francisco and Jacinta, which were next to the tabernacle, and felt the impulse to pray the following prayer: ‘Shepherds, save this child, who is a child like you’…she also persuaded the other sisters to pray to the little shepherds to intercede for him.”

“And so they did,” Batista said. “In the same way, all of us, the family, began to pray to the little shepherds, and two days later, on March 9, Lucas woke up and began to speak, even asking for his little sister.” On the 11th, he left the ICU and was discharged from the hospital a few days later.

 

Since that time, Lucas “has been completely well and has no symptoms or after effects,” the child’s father said. “He has the same intelligence (as he did before the accident), the same character, everything is the same. The doctors, some of them non-believers, said that his recovery had no explanation.”

“We thank God for the cure of Lucas and we know with all the faith we have in our hearts, that this miracle was obtained through the intercession of the little shepherds Francisco and Jacinta.”… Batista said.

 

During the Mass celebrated by Pope Francis on Saturday, Lucas (now, 8 years old) walked up to the altar along with the whole family and gave a big hug to the Holy Father. It was a moment to be cherished. We pray that through the continual intercession of Saints Francisco and Jacinta, Lucas too becomes a messenger of peace to the world!

Jacinta and Francisco, both died before age 12, have become the youngest non-martyrs to be canonized. Sister Lucia, the third visionary, lived much longer, dying in 2005 at the age of 97. The Church is currently examining documents and collecting testimonies for her beatification cause.

 

May Our Lady of Fatima continue to guide this world, torn apart by the ‘Third World War’, in the path of peace and reconciliation.

 

A tail piece on reconciliation and peace that comes to us from South Korea:

On May 10, last Wednesday, Mr Moon Jae-in was sworn in as the new President of South Korea. He is the second Catholic to become the President of South Korea after Kim Dae-jung who was President from 1998 to 2003. Mr Moon Jae-in has spoken about resuming talks with North Korean government, instead of pursuing confrontation and conflict. This message that comes three days ahead of the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, tells us that peace is still possible in this world, if we try honestly. What the Korean Church appreciates in the new president is the already announced approach of opening and negotiating relations with the North. The observers relate it to the "Sunshine Policy", of his predecessor Catholic Kim Dae-jung who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. (Kim Dae-jung was the 8th President of South Korea…He was sometimes referred to as the "Nelson Mandela of Asia". – Wikipedia)

 

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The Revolution of Tenderness

by Rev. Fr. L. X. Jerome S. J. 

 

3rd Sunday of Easter

 

Pope Francis has completed his Apostolic Visit to Egypt (April 28,29) and has returned to Vatican. I wanted to add the word ‘successfully’ to the previous sentence… That is, Pope Francis has ‘successfully completed’ his Apostolic Visit to Egypt etc. In this context, the ‘success’ refers to him not being the target of the senseless violence by the terrorists.

We are aware of the bomb blasts that rocked Egypt on Palm Sunday. Soon after those attacks, Pope Francis made it clear that he would not change the dates of his journey to Egypt and that he would not opt for bullet proof vehicles during his visit to Cairo. Keeping all this in mind, I said that his trip was a ‘success’. Still, those 27 hours that Pope Francis spent in Cairo must have been tense moments for thousands of security personnel.

 

In his very first talk in Cairo delivered at the International Peace Conference at the Al-Azhar conference centre in Cairo, he spoke about violence, masquerading as a religious obligation:

“As religious leaders, we are called, therefore, to unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity and is based more on the “absolutizing” of selfishness than on authentic openness to the Absolute.  We have an obligation to denounce violations of human dignity and human rights, to expose attempts to justify every form of hatred in the name of religion, and to condemn these attempts as idolatrous caricatures of God: Holy is his name, he is the God of peace, God salaam.   Peace alone, therefore, is holy and no act of violence can be perpetrated in the name of God, for it would profane his Name.”

 

Immediately after addressing this conference, when he met the civil authorities of Egypt, he once again spoke of violence unleashed in the name of God and religion:

“In the fragile and complex situation of today’s world, which I have described as ‘a world war being fought piecemeal’, it needs to be clearly stated that no civilized society can be built without repudiating every ideology of evil, violence and extremism that presumes to suppress others and to annihilate diversity by manipulating and profaning the Sacred Name of God…

All of us have the duty to teach coming generations that God, … can neither demand nor justify violence; indeed, he detests and rejects violence (‘God… hates the lover of violence’: Ps 11:5)… It is our duty to dismantle deadly ideas and extremist ideologies, while upholding the incompatibility of true faith and violence, of God and acts of murder.”

 

While Pope Francis spoke about the God of love and peace, leaders from countries like North Korea, South Korea and the United States spoke of war. They have been ‘showing off’ their power in terms of weapons of destruction. A statement from North Korea said that 2 or 3 nuclear bombs from their arsenal are enough to destroy the whole world. What bravado! What madness!

 

The war games played around North Korea brings to mind the recent talk given by Pope Francis - TED Talk, Vancouver, Canada, 25 April 2017. It is worth reading the full text of this talk. But, I would like to quote some excerpts from this talk where the Pope talks of how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely!

“Please, allow me to say it loud and clear: the more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on people, the more responsible you are to act humbly. If you don’t, your power will ruin you, and you will ruin the other.

There is a saying in Argentina: ‘Power is like drinking gin on an empty stomach.’ You feel dizzy, you get drunk, you lose your balance, and you will end up hurting yourself and those around you, if you don’t connect your power with humility and tenderness.

Through humility and concrete love, on the other hand, power – the highest, the strongest one – becomes a service, a force for good. 

 

In this wonderful talk, Pope Francis talks about the ‘the revolution of tenderness’ that all of us can take up:  “Yes, tenderness is the path of choice for the strongest, most courageous men and women. Tenderness is not weakness; it is fortitude. It is the path of solidarity, the path of humility… The future of humankind isn't exclusively in the hands of politicians, of great leaders, of big companies. Yes, they do hold an enormous responsibility. But the future is, most of all, in the hands of those people who recognize the other as a ‘you’ and themselves as part of an ‘us’.”

 

This ‘revolution of tenderness’ brings us to this Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 24: 13-35) where the Risen Jesus, reaches out with tenderness to two of his disciples. Last week, we saw Jesus meeting Thomas who doubted his resurrection. This week Jesus meets two other disciples who, once again, were so caught up with their disillusionment that they paid no heed to the good news of resurrection shared by the women. In short, they too doubted Jesus’ resurrection and walked away from Jerusalem.

 

The Gospel says that the distance between Jerusalem and Emmaus is 11 k.m. With a heavy heart, those two disciples must have been ‘inching’ their way. It is also said that they were ‘talking with each other about all the things that happened’. (Lk. 24:14) It was not simply a sharing of information. They were sharing their disappointments. Pope Francis, in the Mass celebrated on Saturday in Cairo, speaks about these two disciples as persons who experienced ‘death’.

Death.  The two disciples are returning, full of despair and disappointment, to life as usual.  The Master is dead and thus it is pointless to hope.  They feel disappointment and despair.  Theirs is a journey of return, as they leave behind the painful experience of Jesus’ crucifixion...

They could not believe that their Master and Saviour, who had raised others from the dead and healed the sick, would end up hanging on the cross of shame.  They could not understand why Almighty God had not saved him from such a disgraceful death.  The cross of Christ was the cross of their own ideas about God; the death of Christ was the death of what they thought God to be.  But in fact, it was they who were dead, buried in the tomb of their limited understanding.

Then Pope Francis applies the predicament of these disciples to our situation: How often do we paralyze ourselves by refusing to transcend our own ideas of God, a god created in the image and likeness of man!  How often do we despair by refusing to believe that God’s omnipotence is not one of power and authority, but rather of love, forgiveness and life!

 

Jesus joins these heart-broken ‘kids’ with motherly care and tenderness. He takes the liberty to admonish them and also enlighten them. As a climax, he breaks the bread with them. In the breaking they recognized Jesus. While talking of this, Pope Francis invites us to break all the moulds we have created for God:

The disciples recognized Jesus in the “breaking of the bread”, in the Eucharist.  Unless we tear apart the veil clouding our vision and shatter the hardness of our hearts and our prejudices, we will never be able to recognize the face of God.

 

The two disciples who left Jerusalem, completely broken, and totally preoccupied with their own misery, now return to Jerusalem on a mission. Pope Francis concluded his homily in Cairo with an invitation to the people gathered for the Mass. He also extends the same invitation to us:

“So now, like the disciples of Emmaus, filled with joy, courage and faith, return to your own Jerusalem, that is, to your daily lives, your families, your work and your beloved country.  Do not be afraid to open your hearts to the light of the Risen Lord, and let him transform your uncertainty into a positive force for yourselves and for others.  Do not be afraid to love everyone, friends and enemies alike, because the strength and treasure of the believer lies in a life of love!”

 

Let this Easter Season be an opportunity to begin our ‘revolution of tenderness’!   

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Mercy – always unmerited

 by Rev. Fr. L. X. Jerome S. J.

Mercy Sunday

 

In our reflections on Palm Sunday (April 09), we spoke about the Holy Week. There we raised serious doubts about calling this week Holy, since nothing holy took place during the first Holy Week. Betrayal, denial, mock trial and violent crucifixion do not have an iota of holiness in them. Unfortunately, last year, and, this year, the Holy Week, once again, witnessed many unholy violent incidents. 

 

This year, on April 9, Palm Sunday, two Coptic Orthodox churches were the targets of suicide bombers. 47 people who had come to take part in the liturgical celebrations of Palm Sunday were killed and more than a hundred were wounded. On April 15, Holy Saturday, innocent people, fleeing from the war zone in Syria, were killed by bomb blasts. 126 died, out of whom more than 70 were children.

 

Last year, at the start of the Holy Week, on March 22, Tuesday, Brussels was devastated by terrorist attacks. On Easter Day, there was a gruesome attack aimed at Christians in a public park in Lahore, Pakistan… This year, a suicide bomber was tackled by the Lahore police, before he could attempt to blast himself during the Holy Week services.

 

Every tragedy raises more questions than providing answers. When we hear of such tragedies in which innocent people are killed, our minds are filled with the main question – WHY? Most of the times, the Christian response to tragedies, especially tragedies caused by human beings, is forgiveness and prayer. The famous words of Jesus uttered on the Cross for his executioners become the touchstone to examine our willingness to forgive and pray for the perpetrators of violence.

 

I must say that it was a God-sent opportunity for me to come across the homily written by Fr Ron Rolheiser for Good Friday (March 21, 2016). It was titled: The Understanding and Compassion of Good Friday. This homily, written for Good Friday, also helps us to understand the meaning of this Sunday – the Divine Mercy Sunday. I am quoting extensively from this homily of Fr Rolheiser:

 

As Jesus is being crucified he utters these words: “Forgive them, they know not what they do.” It is not easy to say these words and it is perhaps even more difficult to grasp them in their depth. What does it mean, really mean, to understand and forgive a violent action against you?

There are various approaches here: For example, in a tragic note, shared countless times on Social Media, a man who lost his wife in the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015 (Antoine Leiris lost his wife Helene in the Bataclan theatre in Paris.) wrote these words, addressed to those who killed his wife:

 

“On Friday evening you stole the life of an exceptional person, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hatred. I don’t know who you are and I don’t want to know, you are dead souls. If this God, for whom you kill blindly, made us in his image, every bullet in the body of my wife is a wound in his heart. So no, I will not give you the satisfaction of hating you. You want it, but to respond to hatred with anger would be to give in to the same ignorance that made you what you are. … We are only two, my son and I, but we are more powerful than all the world’s armies… every day of his life this little boy will insult you with his happiness and freedom.”

 

While this response is wonderfully heroic and virtuous, it does not, I believe, go deep enough in its understanding and compassion. Virtuous as it is, it still carries a note of moral separateness, of a certain superiority. Further still, it lacks all admission of being itself somehow complicit in the unfortunate circumstances of culture and history that helped bring about this horrible act because it avoids the question: Why do you hate me? It is a very positive and helpful note in its refusal of hatred; but, I fear, it may have exactly the opposite effect upon those whom it accuses. It will further enflame their hatred. 

 

Contrast this with the letter the Trappist Abbott, Christian de Cherge, wrote to his family, just before he, himself, was killed by Islamic terrorists. He writes:

“If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. I ask them to accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. … I ask them to be able to associate such a death with the many other deaths that were just as violent, but forgotten through indifference and anonymity. …  I have lived long enough to know that I share in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, even in that which would strike me blindly. I should like, when the time comes, to have a clear space which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of all my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down. …  I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if this people I love were to be accused indiscriminately of my murder. It would be to pay too dearly for what will, perhaps, be called “the grace of martyrdom,” to owe it to an Algerian, whoever he may be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam. I know the scorn with which Algerians as a whole can be regarded. I know also the caricature of Islam which a certain kind of Islamism encourages. It is too easy to give oneself a good conscience by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideologies of the extremists. …  This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills—immerse my gaze in that of the Father, to contemplate with him his children of Islam just as he sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of his Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, delighting in the differences. … And you also, the friend of my final moment, [my executioner], who would not be aware of what you were doing. Yes, for you also I wish this “thank you”—and this adieu—to commend you to the God whose face I see in yours. And may we find each other, happy ‘good thieves,’ in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Amen.”

 

Ah, to have grace and compassion, to hope to have a drink one day with our enemies in heaven, laughing together at our former misguided hatred, under the loving gaze of the same God!

 

The closing lines of the letter of Fr Christian de Cherge talking about ‘good thieves’, enjoying one another’s company in heaven, helped me to imagine that Jesus not only invited the ‘good’ thief into paradise, but also the ‘other one’… in fact, all the ‘others’ who were responsible for his cruel death, when he said: “Father, forgive them!” This forgiveness that Jesus prays for, is not an alms given to them out of pity, but an honest sharing of His heritage in heaven!

 

How would we react if we meet Pilate, Herod, the Chief Priests, Pharisees as well as Judas in Heaven? Isn’t it high time we prayed for these ‘friends’ of ours that they may share in the Eternal Banquet? I see this as the better option when faced with the violence of ISIS and other mis-guided (or, should I say, differently-guided) groups! “Forgive them, they know not what they do.”

 

The homily of Fr Rolheiser, written for Good Friday, serves as an apt reflection for the Divine Mercy Sunday too. Jesus, the ‘wounded healer’ comes to show his wounds to Thomas in order to heal him and win him back. Showing the wounds is not a gesture of celebrating the victory of Jesus. It is rather a reminder to the disciples to overcome all the wounded feelings they have accumulated during the Passion. It was an invitation to forgive the Romans and the Jewish Leaders of all the wounds they had inflicted on the disciples and would continue to inflict on them. Jesus invites Thomas, his other disciples and us to feel with him, to suffer with him – the literal meaning of ‘Compassion’.

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Called out of our tombs

by Rev. Fr. L. X. Jerome S. J.

 

5th Sunday of Lent

 

Jeremy was born with a twisted body, a slow mind and a chronic, terminal illness that had been slowly killing him all his young life. Still, his parents had tried to give him as normal a life as possible and had sent him to St. Theresa's elementary school. At the age of 12, Jeremy was only in second grade, seemingly unable to learn.

His teacher, Doris Miller, often became exasperated with him.  He would squirm in his seat, drool and make grunting noises. At other times, he spoke clearly and distinctly, as if a spot of light had penetrated the darkness of his brain. Most of the time, however, Jeremy irritated his teacher.

One day, she called his parents and asked them to put Jeremy in a special school. While the mother was trying to hold back her tears, the father spoke: "Miss Miller," he said, "there is no school of that kind nearby.  It would be a terrible shock for Jeremy if we had to take him out of this school. We know he really likes it here." Doris let Jeremy stay on in the school.

 

Spring came, and the children talked excitedly about the coming of Easter. Doris told them the story of Jesus, and then to emphasize the idea of new life springing forth, she gave each of the children a large plastic egg. "Now," she said to them "I want you to take this home and bring it back tomorrow with something inside that shows new life.  Do you understand?"

"Yes, Miss Miller!" The children responded enthusiastically - all except for Jeremy.  He just listened intently; his eyes never left her face. He did not even make his usual noises. Had he understood what she had said about Jesus' death and resurrection?  Did he understand the assignment?

 

The next morning, 19 children came to school, laughing and talking as they placed their eggs in the large wicker basket on Miss Miller's desk. After they completed their math lesson, it was time to open the eggs. In the first egg, Doris found a flower. "Oh yes, a flower is certainly a sign of new life," she said. A small girl in the first row waved her arms. "That's my egg, Miss Miller," she called out.  The next egg contained a plastic butterfly, which looked very real.  Doris held it up.  "We all know that a caterpillar changes and turns into a beautiful butterfly. Yes, that is new life, too" little Judy smiled proudly and said, "Miss Miller, that one is mine"

 

Then Doris opened the next egg.  She gasped. The egg was empty!  Surely it must be Jeremy 's, she thought, and, of course, he did not understand her instructions. Because she did not want to embarrass him, she quietly set the egg aside and reached for another.

Suddenly Jeremy spoke up. "Miss Miller, aren't you going to talk about my egg?" Flustered, Doris replied, "But Jeremy - your egg is empty!"  He looked into her eyes and said softly, "Yes, but Jesus' tomb was empty too!"  Time stopped.  When she could speak again, Doris asked him, "Do you know why the tomb was empty?"  "Oh yes!" Jeremy exclaimed.  "Jesus was killed and put in there.  Then his Father raised him up!"  The recess bell rang.  While the children excitedly ran out to the school yard, Doriscried. The cold inside her  melted completely away.

 

Three months later Jeremy died.  Those who paid their respects at the mortuary were surprised to see 19 eggs on top of his casket, ….. all of them empty.

 

From “An Emotional Easter Egg Story” (Abridged) http://www.mostmerciful.com/easter-egg.htm

 

As we approach Easter, we are given a glimpse into the life after. Jeremy’s lesson is highlighted in today’s Gospel – John 11: 1-45. This Gospel passage talks of one of the most popular miracles of Jesus – the Raising of Lazarus from the dead. Jesus had raised quite many people from the dead; but the case of Lazarus was special. In the other cases (the son of Nain’s widow or the daughter of Jairus) Jesus was present soon after the person died. In the case of Lazarus, Jesus came to Bethany after four days. Among the Jews there was a belief that the soul of the buried person lingered on for three days in the grave and on the fourth day it departed forever and the body began to decay. So, when Jesus arrived at Bethany, it was really too late. Lazarus had begun to decay.

How many times in our lives we have felt that God came too late, or did not come when required! Mary and Martha expressed this to Jesus… “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11: 21, 32) We expect God to come in a particular way and in a particular time; but God comes at an unexpected time and in the most unexpected way. One of the most beautiful aspects of God is… Surprise… the God of Surprises!

 

We can pay attention to the words of Jesus spoken in front of the tomb of Lazarus. The first command of Jesus was: “Take away the stone.” (Jn. 11:39) To roll away the stone was not a big deal for Jesus. A word or, even a thought from him would have accomplished the task. But, Jesus wanted the people around him to do that. God would like us to do what we can, and not expect God’s intervention at every moment in our lives. The faith proclaimed by Martha began the process of this miracle. “Lord,”Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” (Jn. 11: 21-22)Jesus wanted to instill such a trust in the people standing around the tomb, who had given up on Lazarus, since it was already the fourth day. Jesus wanted to tell them, “Whether it is four days or four thousand years, God can open the graves and bring out miracles, if only we trust.”

Such a trust is expressed by Prophet Ezekiel in the first reading given in today’s liturgy:

This is what the Sovereign LORD says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, declares the LORD. (Ez. 37: 12-14) Ezekiel speaks these inspiring words after his famous vision of the valley in which dry bones get clothed in flesh and skin and turn into a mighty army. (Ez. 37: 1-11)

 

Opening the grave or rolling away the tomb stone is our job and giving life is God’s work. But, there was a problem with the rolling away of the stone. Martha expressed this problem directly to Jesus: “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odour, for he has been there four days.” (Jn. 11: 39)Martha, although a very practical lady, was still living in the past and Jesus invited her to live in the present and in the future. Martha is an example for many of us who wish to live in the past, especially with the past hurts, unpleasant memories… We tend to carry around the dead weight of the past.

 

I am reminded of a story… a repulsive story, perhaps… but one with a very good lesson. In Virgil, there is an account of an ancient king, who was so unnaturally cruel in his punishments that he used to chain a dead man to a living criminal. It was impossible for the poor wretch to separate himself from his disgusting burden. The carcass was bound fast to his body -- its hands to his hands; its face to his face; the entire dead body to his living body. Then he was put into a dungeon to die suffocated by the foul emissions of the stinking dead body…

(http://www.cbcisite.com/Sunday%20Homily.htm) The story is surely very repulsive. But quite many of us live with such repulsive habits… the habit of carrying the past with us… especially past hurts!

 

The second command of Jesus was: “Lazarus, come out!” (Jn. 11: 43) Lazarus who was buried for four days came out just as he was buried. We can surely learn to believe that many of our dreams buried deep within, can come alive if only we could hear God’s call. We need to be sensitive to hear this call echoing in the tombs we have built over our dreams and hopes.

 

The third command of Jesus was: “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” (Jn. 11: 44) Even though Lazarus could walk out of the tomb, he still needed the help of others to set him completely free. We need to learn how to untie the knots and chains people are bound with. If we fail to do so, there is every possibility that these persons would not be able to emerge out of their graves.

 

We can easily see that we live in a culture of death. From womb to tomb, life is not respected. The daily massacres that go on in Syria, especially of innocent children, is just an example to show how our present world respects life. As Pope Francis has repeatedly told us our world is suffering from the Third World War, fought in bits and pieces. In this ‘war zone’ which is turning the world into a vast graveyard, we need to become apostles of life and messengers of Resurrection.

 

Raising people from the dead is surely not within our power… that is left to God. But we can surely do our bit… We can roll the stone away, we can untie the people who have managed to come out of their graves. If in case we are buried, we can hear God’s call and come out of our tombs.

 

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From mudslide to messenger of God

By Rev. Fr. L. X. Jerome S. J.

 

3rd Sunday of Lent

 

Woman swept away by mudslide in Peru, but claws her way to safety… Amazing footage: Woman escapes raging mudslide in Peru … Watch a Woman's Dramatic Escape From Mudslide… were some of the headlines of the news from Peru that captured the attention of world media and the social network last week (March 16 and 17). It was accompanied by an amateur video showing a young lady emerging from the, swirling, fast-moving mudslide to safety.

Evangelina Chamorro Diaz crawled and stumbled through debris as she tried to reach onlookers for help in Punta Hermosa, about 40km outside of the capital Lima. The 32-year-old said she survived by grabbing on to tree branches and trying to build a makeshift bridge to drag herself out of the mud. (Sky News)

 

Evangelina serves as the starting point of our Sunday reflection today. She is Evangelina (meaning ‘good news’) and she fought against the mudslide that was carrying her to her certain death. Swimming against the tide in water is very difficult. Here, Evangelina was swimming against the tide in swirling mud. She must have had extraordinary physical and mental stamina to do this! From the mudslide emerges ‘good news’! She, thus, reminds us of the Samaritan woman who meets Jesus in today’s Gospel (John 4: 5-42). Being a woman, a Samaritan woman was tough. This lady, living with the sixth man, must have been smeared with mud most of the days. Figuratively speaking, she was surrounded by mudslide all the time. From this mudslide, Jesus saves her and makes her an evangelist! Thus, Evangelina, the Peruvian woman, reminds us of the Samaritan woman.

 

This Sunday as well as the next two Sundays, the gospel texts will put us in touch with three of the most significant spiritual symbols of our Faith: water, light and life, symbols closely connected with Easter. Today’s gospel revolves around the well in Samaria, with a discourse on water. Next Sunday it will be the curing of the visually handicapped person, with thoughts on light. The third week – the final week before the Holy Week – it will be the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead and the discourse on life. All the three passages are taken from the Gospel of John, which, as we know well, is not a simple narrative of Jesus’ life but a theological treatise as well.

 

The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is one of the longest (if not the longest) conversation recorded in the four gospels. This conversation is a good example of the inward journey taken by a person (Samaritan woman) who, ultimately, makes this journey towards Jesus and God. Quite often we tend to feel that we know enough about self, Jesus and God and thus lose out on newer insights. We forget that we are all pilgrims on this world, constantly called to journey. With a false surety that ‘we know everything’ about self, others and God, we tend to stay put and stagnate! Only when we venture out, we shall encounter surprises about ourselves and about God. ‘The God of Surprises’ is one of the basic, beautiful attributes of God!

 

Today’s gospel gives us a picture of Jesus who not only surprises us, but, shocks us. He voluntarily initiates a conversation with a Samaritan woman who comes to the well at mid day. The woman’s late visit to the well (women, usually, gathered at the well early in the morning) may suggest that she was an outcast in the village, even among the Samaritans, because of her questionable living situation! Jesus begins this discourse expressing his need for water.

 

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (John 4: 7) A simple request for water opens up quite many issues and ultimately ends on sublime themes related to God and worship. Here is the first lesson from today’s gospel: that no place is alien to talk about God. We know that in villages, the well, the tea shop and the tree in the village square are good spots for gossips, political opinions and even philosophical thoughts. Jesus shows us that a conversation near a well can also be profoundly divine!

 

The initial reaction of the Samaritan woman is a grim reminder of how the human family has not progressed in certain areas even after centuries. The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (John 4: 9) You-and-I distinction even in the case of a basic need. Thirst knows no caste and religion. Hence, it would be highly impossible for any one to refuse water to the one who is thirsty. But, with water becoming more and more a private property and hence scarce and costly, it is becoming more and more delicate to request water and to share water even in dire situations. Due to its rich business proposition, water has come to be called ‘blue gold’ in our days!

 

On March 22nd, Wednesday, World Water Day 2017, Pope Francis will inspire a global conversation. His address from the Vatican will help shift how the world values and understands its single most precious resource: water. Immediately following the Papal address, at 10:30 a.m. CET, 400 thought leaders from around the world will convene at WATERSHED. These policy makers and academics, together with students, artists, business leaders and men and women from the most at-risk populations will begin an unprecedented dialogue around the value and values of water. The conference is co-hosted by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture and the Club of Rome.

 

Pope Francis has warned that we could be moving toward “a major world war for water.” He did so when addressing participants at the concluding session of an international seminar on “the human right to water,” held at the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences on Feb. 23 and 24, 2017.

“I ask if in this piecemeal third world war that we are living through, are we not going toward a great world war for water?”, the pope said, departing from his prepared text. Specialists in the field have already predicted that some of the major armed conflicts in the future could be over the possession of or access to water, but this is the first time that Francis has spoken in these terms. (America Magazine)

 

The great Indian environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna, has expressed similar sentiments when he said: “Nations all across the world are facing a water crisis that is deepening with the passing of each day… This situation demands immediate notice and remedial measures from our governments and policymakers. Otherwise, mankind has to face the wrath of an inevitable third world war on the issue of water.”

 

The thirst of Jesus and the hesitation of the Samaritan woman still echo in different parts of the world. The great natural gift of God – water – has, unfortunately, been used as a political and caste weapon, dividing people. The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman also highlights another division among people. Not only the gifts of God, but God himself / herself is divided under various pretexts. Jesus is rather emphatic in saying that true God and true worship do not divide the people: “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”  (John 4: 21-24)

 

I don’t think that any one could make this clearer and easier than Jesus. Curiously, Jesus begins this statement with a request… almost a plea: “Woman, believe me…” It is hard for us to believe that God can be worshipped in such simplicity. But, that is the true worship that ‘the Father seeks’.

 

Lenten season is a call to conversion. Let us be converted to using God’s gifts (especially water) properly without avarice and monopoly. Let us be converted not to divide God into various human slots, but allow God to be God and try to worship God in Spirit and in Truth.

 

My closing thoughts go back to Evangelina emerging from the mudslide in Peru. We pray that women all over the world hold on to hope while swimming against the mudslide created by the male-domination!

 

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The dam of selfishness preventing ‘change’

by Rev. Fr. L. X. Jerome S. J. 

 

2nd Sunday of Lent

 

This Sunday, which happens to fall on March 12, takes us back by 40 years to a small town in El Salvador. On March 12, 1977, Fr Rutilio Grande Garcia, a Jesuit priest, was gunned down by the ‘death squad’ of El Salvador, along with his parishioners - Manuel Solorzano, 70, and 16-year-old Nelson Rutilio Lemus. Fr Grande’s body was riddled with a dozen bullets. He was a marked man right from the time he took up his priestly ministry among the poor in his hometown, El Paisnal.

Father Grande was a passionate preacher and an inspired organizer, who constantly feared that the church was not walking with the people but in front of them. His prophetic ability to hear the cry of the poor, challenged the government, the military, wealthy landowners and even his own church leaders. In one homily, delivered before El Salvador’s president and military leaders, he courageously proclaimed: Many baptized in this country have not accepted the postulates of the Gospel that demand a transfiguration, and therefore, those same people are not transfigured in their mind and in their heart and they put a dam of selfishness in front of the message of Jesus our Savior, and the demanding voice of the official witnesses of Christ through the church, the pope and his bishops! (America Magazine)

 

Here is an excerpt from the Catholic News Service - dated March 8, 2017:

Forty years after his death, Father Grande has powerful admirers in the church. Fellow Jesuit Pope Francis is said to have asked a member of the commission pushing for the beatification of Father Grande whether there was yet a documented miracle attributed to the Jesuit's intercession. When the answer was no, the pope said he knew of one: Archbishop Romero.

It is popularly believed something inside the Archbishop changed when he saw the brutal manner in which Father Grande and his parishioners were killed. Before the killings, he hadn't publicly spoken about the deteriorating social situation in the country or abuses against the poor.

Witnesses said that as Father Grande's body was carried toward his parish, it practically came apart because of the many wounds. The incident, along with other cases Archbishop Romero knew about involving the killing of unarmed civilians, led the Archbishop to take up Father Grande's voice in defending the poor. (CNS)

 

Archbishop Romero who continued where Fr Grande left, was silenced by a single bullet fired at the heart, while he was celebrating Mass on March 24, (the eve of the Feast of the Annunciation), 1980. The Vatican beatified Archbishop Romero in 2015 after determining he was killed out of hatred for his Catholic faith. This year marks the first Centenary of Blessed Romero’s birth – August 15, 1917. Today (March 12) is the 40th anniversary of the brutal killing of Fr Grande.

 

It is significant that both Fr Grande and Archbishop Romero were killed in March, during the Season of Lent. Both these martyrs were advocating change in the society as well as in the Church of El Salvador. Change, as we know, is the key theme of Lent.

This Sunday we have two reasons to reflect on ‘Change’. The Liturgical Readings present us with the theme of ‘Change’. That is the first reason. Today’s Gospel (Matthew 17: 1-9) talks of the change in Jesus – his Transfiguration. The First Reading (Genesis 12: 1-4) talks of Abraham being invited to change from the known to the unknown. In simple terms, he was asked to leave his hometown and move to a strange place. When Abraham was invited to make this change, he was 75 years old! (Gn. 12:4)

Four years back, in March, a Bishop who was 77 years old, was invited to make a similar change. This is the second reason for us to reflect on ‘Change’. Yes, when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was invited to leave Buenos Aires, and take up the leadership ministry of the Holy Catholic Church, he was 77 years old – old enough to retire from active ministry! In all probability, he would have already tendered his resignation from his ministry as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, when he was asked to take up his ministry as the Bishop of Rome!

 

Tomorrow, Monday, March 13, 2017, Pope Francis will be completing his fourth year as the Bishop of Rome. Ever since Pope Francis took up this role, expectations ran high as to how he would CHANGE EVERYTHING in VATICAN and in THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH as a whole. On quite a few occasions, he has made it more than clear that changes in the Church will have to begin with changes from the individuals. As a person, he has lived up to what he was saying… namely, change at the personal level.

Ever since he appeared on the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica around 8 p.m. on March 13, 2013, he had changed our perspective on who the Pope is. Pope Francis, appeared on the balcony, wearing a simple white cassock with a simple crucifix – no red mozzetta (red upper piece covering the shoulders up to the waist), and no golden, ornamented crucifix. Talk of first impressions!

What followed in the next 20 to 30 minutes confirmed that the Pope was one of us. The first words he spoke to the world at large were: “Fratelli e Sorelle, buona sera” – Brothers and Sisters, Good evening! It was like listening to a Parish Priest chatting with his parishioners. The distance between the Pope and the people dissolved that instant!

 

What followed was a defining moment of CHANGE which is etched deep in the minds of thousands of people who were watching him directly as well as on TV. Pope Francis requested the people to pray for him. He said: And now I would like to give the blessing, but first I want to ask you a favour. Before the bishop blesses the people I ask that you would pray to the Lord to bless me – the prayer of the people for their Bishop. Let us say this prayer – your prayer for me – in silence.

Pope Francis, the Supreme Pontiff of 1.2 billion Catholics around the world, bowed down before the people and asked for their prayers. That gesture was a supreme testimony of the type of person we have as our Holy Father. The silence that prevailed in Peter’s Square would have left lasting impression on millions around the world. If the Pope can bow down in prayer before the world in the full glare of all the media, then we can be assured of many blessings!

 

I am sure many of us have prayed for Popes and their intentions many times in our life. None of them, as far as I know, have made this request to me personally. Here was a Pope who was doing it personally. That one gesture erased all the distance between the Pope and the people. All through these four years, he has repeatedly asked people to pray for him. Even on the First Anniversary while he was making his Annual Retreat, he had tweeted saying: “Please pray for me.” This was a refreshing CHANGE, indeed!

 

In these four years of his leadership ministry, Pope Francis has brought in many changes on the personal level:

  • In the House of St Martha where he continues to stay, he serves his own meals and sits down in any available chair, with other members of the community.
  • He keeps calling people directly over the phone and gives them pleasant surprises. For the First Anniversary, the Vatican Publishing House has published a book titled: “Pronto? Sono Francesco. Il Papa e la rivoluzione comunicativa un anno dopo” (Hello? This is Pope Francis. The Pope and the Communication Revolution one year later) written by Massimo Enrico Milone.
  • In the interviews he has given to quite a few newspapers and magazines, he has mentioned that, like any other person, he has his own moments of doubts and darkness of the soul etc.

 

Looking back on these four years of Pope Francis in Vatican, one can easily think of the many ‘revolutions’ he has made. Many of them have been highlighted by the media worldwide. To me these are not important. There are so many other ‘revolutions’ initiated by Pope Francis that have not grabbed the attention of the media, but have made significant changes in the lives of people.

  • Persons who have left the Church for many years have returned to the Church after seeing Pope Francis.
  • The simplicity of Pope Francis has set in motion changes in other ‘leaders’ of the Church, who have begun to see themselves not as leaders but ministers (meaning, servants).
  • People’s idea has become more focussed and clear as to how their pastors and bishops should be – in terms of their residence, their dress, and the vehicles and gadgets they use. Bishops in some parts of the world have been ‘pulled up’ by the people for being pompous and extravagant!

 

Even if Pope Francis does not achieve anything significant as the Bishop of Rome, the very fact that he had made the Pope an accessible, ordinary human being, is a very big achievement, indeed. I call this a very BIG achievement since I believe that this ‘accessibility’ will set in motion many other changes in Vatican and in the entire Church, perhaps extending its influence even to the rest of the world. If the Pope is an ordinary human person, then, naturally, the others – namely, the Cardinals, the Bishops and the Priests are human beings as well. They cannot hoist themselves on pedestals and build protective walls around them. When walls and pedestals break down, fresh breeze can come in! The Church seems to be undergoing a ‘transfiguration’ with the help of a wave that is sweeping over Vatican.

 

Waves always move forward. They are not stagnant nor go back! Waves are a good sign of life and change! Let ‘Pope Francis Wave’ which was set in motion on March 13, 2013, continue to create ripples!

 

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The desert-school of Jesus

by Rev. Fr. L. X. Jerome S. J.

 

Once upon a time a certain mother was tempted to quit – quit her job, quit her family, quit her parish, quit everything. When the parish priest suggested she read about the temptation of Jesus, she said that she had already and that all the demands which were made on her, presumably with God’s approval and even connivance, were about the same as being asked to jump off the parapet of the temple. How was she supposed to do everything in the family – bring in money, cook the meals, clean the house, worry about the kids, help with the home work, keep an eye on the TV the kids were watching – when no one else seemed worried about these things? She loved her job and she loved her family, but she was tired and all she wanted to do was quit. Well, said the parish priest, why not go on strike. The woman thought about that and decided she would.

She contracted a case of blue flu – too sick to go to her job, too sick to take care of the house, too sick to help with homework, too sick to worry about the kids, too sick to do anything but lie in bed and watch TV. The doctor was summoned and suggested that she needed a long rest. You know what happened then? The mother found that it was all BORING. The daytime soaps were particularly BORING! So she improved rapidly, especially when everyone promised that they would help (which they did, but often just made the mother’s task more complicated). Temptations, said the mother, look a lot better before you give into them than afterwards. (Homily from Fr Andrew M. Greeley)

 

Temptations come in different shapes and sizes… mostly very attractive. Only after they take root in our lives do they show their true colours. Every year, the First Sunday of Lent invites us to think about temptations. Today’s first reading talks of the temptation faced by our first parents. (Genesis 2: 7-9; 3: 1-7) The Gospel talks of temptations faced by Jesus. (Matthew 4: 1-11) EVERY human being was, is, and will be tempted. No exceptions. Not even Jesus.

 

Some years back, I was discussing this topic with a friend of mine with a view to prepare the homily. The moment he saw the theme ‘temptation’, he began singing an old Tamil film song that talked of the hero being beset with trials - Sothanai mel sothanai podhumadaa saami. (In Tamil we generally use the word ‘sothanai’ for trials and temptations.) The hero of the film pleads with God not to send him more temptations.

 

Does God send temptations? Every now and then we feel that way. When we are deep in trouble, we raise our eyes to heaven and blurt out something like this: Oh, God, why do you send me such trials and temptations? The opening verse of today’s Gospel gives us some sort of clarity as to who sends us temptations. Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. (Mt. 4:1)

The devil tempted Jesus and the Holy Spirit led Jesus into this situation, probably, whispering words of encouragement and support. This seems to explain what we experience! The devil is ever ready to tempt us. In such a situation, it is God who stays close and seems to ‘permit’ the evil one to tempt us. This is the theme of the Book of Job. This is what we see in the Garden of Eden.

 

If we go through Chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis (Our first reading is taken from these chapters), God created a lovely garden; planted all sorts of trees; placed Adam (and later Eve) in that garden. Till then the story is a fairy tale. Then came the commandment that they should not touch a particular tree in the garden. It also looks odd that he created the serpent (we assume that this was the devil) more cunning than other creatures (Gn. 3:1) and allowed the serpent to interact with Eve. Why plant a tree in the first place and then forbid the First Parents from even touching it?

If only God had not planted that particular tree…

If only God had not created the serpent more cunning…

If only God had not allowed the serpent to interact with Eve…

If only… Well, we are generous in our counsels to God.

Sometimes we feel that we have better ideas than God as to how things should have been done.

 

This is exactly the beauty of God’s love. While he gave all the other living beings the simple command – “Be fruitful and multiply…”, he gave the human beings the special command of ‘making proper choices’. If only God had not given this capacity to human beings, we would all be ‘programmed’ to follow God’s will to the minutest detail. No choices, no problems, no evil… No Original Sin… Wow! If the whole world functioned as a well-oiled machine, there would be no factions, no frictions, no failures… But that would be the world of the ‘robots’. God created human beings and not pre-programmed robots. God placed human beings, including His beloved Son, in the midst of trials and temptations. This is how I understand that ‘the Spirit led Jesus to be tempted by the devil’!

 

All the three synoptic gospels talk of this experience of Jesus. The temptation-event in the life of Jesus is different from the other events. While there were quite a few witnesses to the other events, Jesus was the only eyewitness to this event. Why did Jesus, who shunned all publicity, tell His disciples about this personal experience he had all alone in the desert? Why did the three evangelists record this ‘struggle of Jesus’ for posterity? Perhaps Jesus wanted us to learn quite a few lessons from this most common of all human experiences.

 

The first lesson is that temptations are very attractive. I am sure many of us have seen the Life of Christ enacted on stage. In almost all these stage plays, the scene of the devil tempting Jesus is a must. It would be a dramatic scene with the devil usually clothed in black, with the face painted also in black, with protruding teeth, with two horns and with a loud, scary voice entering the stage. If Satan comes in this fashion, then all of us would flee the scene, or, drive away this horrible creature from our sight. All of us know that Satan comes clothed in light… And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. (II Cor. 11:14)

 

All the three temptations that Jesus faced were ‘good’ temptations, very logical. This is the second lesson we need to learn about temptations – that they are very logical. Jesus was hungry; therefore He was asked to turn the stones into bread. Jesus wanted to begin his public ministry; therefore He was asked to begin his ministry with a bang… by jumping off the pinnacle of the Temple. Jesus wanted to gain the whole world for His Father; therefore He was asked to make compromises with the devil. All the three ‘therefore’s sound very logical.

 

Satan also uses an opening salvo to ‘hook’ Jesus into doing his bidding. If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.” On the one hand, this looks like a childish challenge. Kids throw such challenges at one another “Hey, Tom, if you are so brave, why don’t you climb this tree? Why don’t you do this… and why don’t you do that?” etc. But, a closer analysis of these ‘childish challenges’ also gives us a clue that the Satan was trying to define what the Son of God must be like. If Jesus was the Son of God, He must use His powers to gratify himself, to make a spectacular entry into human history, to make compromises with evil forces even to the point of total surrender to them… In short, this is a short cut… a path of least resistance… an unholy, compromising alliance. 

 

Jesus tries to respond to these challenges in his own style. He rewrites the definition of the Son of God. If someone uses his / her special powers to satiate one’s own needs or to seek popularity, he or she is a magician and not the Son of God. Jesus, who refused to use his power to satiate his own hunger in the desert, used his special powers to feed thousands in another ‘deserted’ place. Jesus, who refused to surrender to the Satan with a strong rebuttal: “Away from me, Satan!”, was willing to surrender to the Father while He was in his most vulnerable moment on the Cross. These are some of the lessons Jesus tries to teach us about temptations.

Are we listening? Lenten season is a good time to learn from the desert-school of Jesus!

 

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Serving God, money and worry

by Rev. Fr. L. X. Jerome S. J. 

8th Sunday in Ordinary Time

 

We have been reflecting on the different sections of the Sermon on the Mount for the past four Sundays. Today, we conclude this ‘mini-series’. Reflecting on the Sermon on the Mount - where Jesus has constantly challenged us to change our perspective and direction in life - is an excellent preparation for the Lenten Season which begins coming Wednesday.

“A Few Buttons Missing” is a book written by James T.Fisher and L.S.Hawley in 1951. Fisher, a psychiatrist by profession, talks about the Sermon on the Mount in his book:

"If you were to take the sum total of all authoritative articles ever written by the most qualified of psychologists and psychiatrists on the subject of mental hygiene--if you were to combine them and refine them and cleave out the excess verbiage--if you were to take the whole of the meat and none of the parsley, and if you were to have these unadulterated bits of pure scientific knowledge concisely expressed by the most capable of living poets, you would have an awkward and incomplete summation of the Sermon on the Mount. And it would suffer immeasurably through comparison. For nearly two thousand years the Christian world has been holding in its hands the complete answer to its restless and fruitless yearnings. Here ... rests the blueprint for successful human life with optimum mental health and contentment."

Harry S.Truman, the 33rd President of the U.S. paid this compliment on the Sermon on the Mount: I do not believe there is a problem in this country or the world today which could not be settled if approached through the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount.

 

Many world leaders and great thinkers agree that the Sermon on the Mount is indeed a rich resource of happy, healthy living. In today’s Gospel passage (Matthew 6: 24-34) Jesus gives us sharp insights as to how to lead uncompromising lives worthy of Christians. Unfortunately, today’s world has made the attitude of compromise as the norm and uncompromising, noble ways as the exception and, sad to say, eccentric!

Jesus’ idea of uncompromising life comes through in some of his statements - call them suggestions, advice, challenges - in today’s Gospel:

  • You cannot serve both God and money.
  • Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.
  • Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

All these statements sound very ideal and out-of-this-world. But, on deeper analysis, they can be seen as very down-to-earth. They are not exceptional or eccentric! It is a question of perspective!

 

Jesus begins today’s Gospel with the opening salvo: “No one can serve two masters”. While reading this line, my mind instinctively thought of politicians. They would easily serve several masters at the same time, not letting any of them know where their true allegiance lies. Their ultimate master is money. They would do anything; go any distance to serve their great master - Mammon. Jesus makes a specific reference to this in the very next sentence: You cannot serve God and money.

 

What did Jesus mean by this? Depending on which word we lay the emphasis, the meaning would change as well. I would like to emphasise the word SERVE. A true disciple of Jesus cannot SERVE God and money.

For Jesus, there is nothing wrong with money, provided it is kept in its proper place. One can earn, save, and share money; but cannot SERVE money. I was struck by Jesus putting money on par / in competition with God. Can money compete with God? Unfortunately, yes… and, worse still, it seems to be winning the race, mainly in the world of politics and business where money has assumed a divine status.

 

To worry or not to worry is a crucial human question. In the second part of today’s Gospel, Jesus answers this question in his own style. Erma Louise Bombeck was an American humorist who achieved great popularity for her newspaper column that described suburban home life from the mid-1960s until the late 1990s. Bombeck also published 15 books, most of which became best-sellers. She once wrote about a little guy named Donald. Donald was worrying about going to school. Here is how he expressed his anxieties. “My name is Donald. I don’t know anything. I have a new underwear, a loose tooth and I didn’t sleep last night because I’m worried. What if the bell rings and a man yells, ‘Where do you belong,’ and I don’t know? What if the trays in the cafeteria are too tall for me to reach? What if my loose tooth comes out when we have our heads down and are supposed to be quiet? Am I supposed to bleed quietly? What if I splash water on my name tag and my name disappears and no one knows who I am?”

 

I am sure most of us smiled reading the list of worries enlisted by poor little Donald. If we pity poor Donald, we need to pity all of us! Inside every one of us there lives a Donald. We tend to drown in a teaspoon of worry. To worry or not to worry? Does Jesus tell us simply to brush aside worries; sweep them under the carpet; pretend that there is no care in the world? What does Jesus mean by saying ‘do not worry about your life’? I would like to see this as a sequel to the previous section of today’s Gospel, where Jesus had indicated how money can replace God. Here Jesus indicates that we can be drowned in worries so much, that God would disappear from our life. Once again God is put in competition with worries.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tries to tell us in a very simple but elegant way that God is much bigger than our worries. Unfortunately, when we are beset with worries it is much harder for us to believe these words of Jesus. Our worries seem much more tangible and over powering than God. Granted. But, by just worrying about actual and imagined things – like poor Donald – what do we achieve? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? This challenge of Jesus is pretty simple and straightforward.

 

Thomas Borkovec, a professor of Psychology at Penn State University, is (like many of us), an expert in the field of worry. The key difference is that Dr. Borkovec makes his living by diagnosing what other folks are worried about. He has determined that the single most common source of worry is not the fear of war, financial disaster, holes in the ozone layer, AIDS, cancer, loss of a job, divorce or any of those other topics that one might place atop a traditional worry list. Instead, Dr. Borkovec claims that the single most frequent source of worry is other people's opinions of our lives. "If this happens, what will they think? What will people say? Will I be laughed at? Will I be excluded?"

 

By placing ‘others’ as the centre of our worries, and anxieties, we get drowned in them. Jesus says that by placing God at the centre of our lives, we can come out of the ocean of worries. The closing words of Jesus in today’s Gospel are truly golden words: Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Mt. 6: 34)

 

I am not sure whether these words of Jesus inspired Marijohn Wilkin and Kris Kristofferson to write that famous song – ‘One Day at a Time’. When we tend to be submerged with worries about tomorrow, about what to eat, drink, wear, etc., we can surely pray these lines which help us take life ‘one day at a time’. Here are the lines of this famous song / prayer:

 

I'm only human, I'm just a man/woman

Help me believe in what I could be

And all that I am

Show me the stairway I have to climb

Lord for my sake, teach me to take

One day at a time

 

One day at a time sweet Jesus

That's all I'm askin' of you

Just give me the strength

To do every day what I have to do

Yesterday's gone sweet Jesus

And tomorrow may never be mine

Lord, help me today, show me the way

One day at a time

 

Do you remember when you walked among men

Well Jesus you know

If you're lookin' below, it's worse now than then

Pushin' and shovin' and crowdin' my mind

So for my sake, teach me to take

One day at a time

 

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Showing the other cheek, sowing peace

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time

 

The giant truck eased into the parking lot of a highway motel. The driver went in and ordered a steak. Before he could eat it, in walked a motorcycle gang, with dirty leather jackets and long, unkempt hair. They took the man's steak, cut it into six pieces, and ate it. The driver said nothing. He simply paid the bill and walked out. One of the gang members said, "That man couldn't talk. He didn't say a word." Another one said, "He couldn't fight, either; he didn't lift a hand." A waiter added, "I would say that he couldn't drive either. On his way out of the parking lot, he ran over six motorcycles crushing all of them." Something in us loves that story. We tend to support what the truck driver had done – namely, ‘teaching a lesson’ to the motorcycle gang. We love stories and film scenes that present the ‘eye for an eye’ theme, in subtle and explicit ways.

‘Eye for an eye’, ‘tooth for a tooth’, ‘tit for tat’ etc. are not Christian ways, says Jesus in today’s Gospel. Some commentators say that the passage we have for this Sunday’s liturgy (Matthew 5: 38-48) is the core of the Sermon on the Mount. Let us try to understand the depth of the challenge proposed by Jesus in this passage. Jesus, not only challenges us, but challenges the Law of Moses.

 

Moses, taking a cue from the Hammurabi codes, instructed the Israelites to follow tit-for-tat retaliation, rather than to wreak total destruction upon their enemies. That is, instead of mutilating or murdering all the members of the offender’s family or tribe, they should discover the offender and only punish him/her with an equal mutilation or harm. This was the origin of the ‘an eye for an eye’ and ‘a tooth for a tooth’ law. Jesus challenged this law. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5: 38-42)

 

In this passage, Jesus makes a specific mention of getting slapped ‘on the right cheek’. Here, Jesus is not speaking only about the physical abuse of slapping, but also the insult one suffers by getting slapped on the right cheek. This is a clear case of adding insult to injury! Most of us are right-handed. So, when a person slaps another with the right hand, the slap lands on the left cheek. Only when the person who slaps, uses the back hand, he or she could slap another on the right cheek. This was usually the treatment given to the Jews by the Romans.

 

Paul Penley, a Bible schlar, has written an article titled: “Turning the Other Cheek”: Jesus’ Peaceful Plan to Challenge Injustice. Here he reflects on the words of Jesus in the cultural context of the Roman occupied Israel.

 

In Jesus’ day Roman soldiers strutted arrogantly around Israel. The Jewish land was Roman occupied territory. There was no love lost between the occupying soldiers and the Israelite population. When a soldier decided that he needed a Jew’s goods or services, resistance was futile. The Jewish subject better be quick to fetch water, strong enough to carry a load, and ready to give away his shirt or else. If the subject could not perform the request to the soldier’s liking, then a quick backhand to the face was not far behind. This was the situation Jesus addressed in the Sermon on the Mount.

“If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek toward him.” … Why would Jesus indicate that the first blow will come to the right cheek? Why would he instruct someone to offer the left cheek to an attacking Roman soldier?

The answer is simple. Roman soldiers tended to be right-handed. When they struck an equal with a fist, it came from the right and made contact with the left side of the face. When they struck an inferior person, they swung with the back of their right hand making contact with the right cheek. In a Mediterranean culture that made clear distinctions between classes, Roman soldiers backhanded their subjects to make a point. Jews were second-class.

When Jesus tells fellow Jews to expose the left cheek, he is calling for “peaceful subversion.” He does not want them to retaliate in anger nor to shrink in some false sense of meekness. He wants to force the Roman soldiers to treat them like equals. He wants the Jews to stand up and demand respect. He wants to make each attacker stop and think about how they are mistreating another human being. It is the same motivation behind his command to “go an extra mile” after a soldier forced you to carry water for the first mile (Matt 5:41). It is intended to activate the soldier’s conscience.

Jesus’ command to “turn the other cheek” is ultimately a call to peaceful resistance. It is the mantra of great men inspired by Jesus like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr… “Turning the other cheek” is not blanket acceptance of brutality. It is a strategy for motivating others to change. If you meet evil with evil and blow for blow, the cycle of vengeance will never end.

“Peaceful subversion” is one among many of Jesus’ plans for changing the world.

 

The idea of peaceful resistance, of restoring justice at the cost of one’s own pain, captured the imagination of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. They were inspired by these words of Jesus to lead their non-violent resistance.

Here is a scene from the movie ‘Gandhi’! In this scene, Gandhi is shown walking with a friend Chalie Andrews who is a Presbyterian minister. The two suddenly find their way blocked by young thugs. The Reverend Andrews takes one look at the menacing gangsters and decides to run. Gandhi stops him and asks, "Doesn't the New Testament say if an enemy strikes you on the right cheek, you should offer him the left?" Andrews mumbles something about Jesus speaking metaphorically. Gandhi replies, "I'm not so sure. I suspect he meant you must show courage; be willing to take a blow, several blows, to show you will not strike back nor will you be turned aside."

 

When I was ‘googling’ with the phrase – ‘turning the other cheek’ – I came across very many life events that inspired me. These events are not simply stories of forgiveness. They are stories where the ‘enemy’ was won over by the ‘disciple’. Here is one of them:

 

A Short Lesson on Turning the Other Cheek - With Stories That Show How it is Better!

It was 8:30pm and over a hundred men and some women partners were all gathered in a park eating a really lovely meal served up to the poor and homeless in Sydney, Australia. One of my friends had finished his meal and was standing chatting when a big angry man came up and smashed him on the cheek with a punch. Nick, my friend, recovered from the shock and said, "Do you need to do that again?" The thug hit him with another hard punch and he got the same reply from Nick, "Do you need to do that again?" The thug hit Nick, who was a black belt in his own right, four times and four times Nick asked the same question. The heart of the thug was broken through this and he began to weep. He said, "Why won't you ring the police and put me in jail?"

Nick realized that this man was having a real hard time being out in free society after being locked up in the jail routines for too many years. Nick put his arm around him and said, "Do you want to come with me and have a nice brewed coffee and we will have a good chat?"

 

Such events do happen day after day around us. Only a few get the attention of the media. Unfortunately, our media seems to revel more often in stories of ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth’. We are aware of the famous quote: “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind,” attributed to Gandhi. There is also a Chinese Proverb which says: “Whoever pursues revenge should dig two graves; one for the avenged and one for himself.”

 

An-eye-for-an-eye formula has made our world more of a graveyard than a nursery where love can be grown. Against such a formula, there are millions of us, ordinary humans, who still sow seeds of love. Here is one of us – Gladys Staines! Gladys Staines is the wife of Graham Staines who was burnt alive along with his two sons Philip and Timothy in Orissa, India (22nd January, 1999). When Dara Singh, who was convicted of these murders, was sentenced to death, Gladys made a plea to the court and to the government to commute the death sentence. She also made a public statement that she had forgiven those who had committed this crime. She believed that only in forgiveness can hope survive. Let us grow in courage and hope to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile to win over persons suffering from hatred!

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Challenges keep coming…

by Rev. Fr. L. X. Jerome S. J. 

 

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

 

For the third week in succession, we are reflecting on the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount. Last week we considered two imageries used by Jesus – Salt and Light. This week we begin our reflections with the imageries of Fire and Water. These imageries are given in the first reading from the Book of Sirach. The passage given today is very direct and lucid. Here it is:

SIRACH 15: 15-17

If you will, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. He has placed before you fire and water: stretch out your hand for whichever you wish. Before a man are life and death, and whichever he chooses will be given to him.

 

Fire and water are placed before us and we are asked to stretch out our hand to take whichever we wish to choose. In the same way, life and death are before us and we are asked to choose. It is simple common sense that between fire and water we would stretch out our hands only towards water. Between life and death, we would choose only life. But… wait a moment! Things are not that simple and clear in life. Common sense does not guide all our choices all the time. There are other factors like habits, emotions and situational pressures. We can surely think of moments when we stretched out our hands towards fire. Dancing flames, though dangerous, are attractive. When a child, attracted by dancing flames, moves closer to the fire, we do not allow the child on this dangerous expedition… But, as grown ups, haven’t we undertaken such expeditions? Haven’t we played with fire?

 

Water and fire are in themselves lovely gifts from God, provided we use them properly. It is here that we, as a human family, have not learnt our lessons – especially the lesson of sharing these lovely gifts. We have ‘played with fire’ over the issue of equitable sharing of water resources. All of us know the anxiety expressed by very many knowledgeable people that ‘the third world war will be fought over water’.

A recent report "Water Cooperation for a Secure World" published (2013) by Strategic Foresight Group concludes that active water cooperation between countries reduces the risk of war. This conclusion is reached after examining trans-boundary water relations in over 200 shared river basins in 148 countries. (Wikipedia – Water conflict)

 

Sirach also talks of the choice between Life and Death. The famous Jesuit, Walter Burghardt, focused in on the phrase, ‘Before a man are life and death, whichever he chooses shall be given to him.’ He goes on to state that to the ancient Hebrews, life meant far more than the period between conception and death.  Life was what proceeded from loving and obeying God.  And death was not just that which followed the last breath on earth.  To the ancient Hebrews, death was the rejection of the living God. “Seek the Lord and you will live,” the prophet Amos tells the people.  He was not just speaking of eternity.  He was speaking of living life to its fullest right now.  And, conversely, isolate yourself from the love of the Lord, and you will join the living dead. (Homily from Father Joseph Pellegrino)

 

Hence, for a faithful Hebrew, life was not measured in terms of quantity - the number of years, but in terms of the quality of life, spent in loving and obeying God. Unfortunately, the idea of loving and obeying God was reduced to following the Laws of Moses. Even here, the Israelites tended to follow the ‘letter’ of the Law than the ‘spirit’, since they were misled by the religious leaders. Jesus makes a subtle reference to this when he says in today’s Gospel: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 5: 20)

The contrast between the ‘letter’ and the ‘spirit’ of the Law is the main theme of today’s Gospel passage – Matthew 5: 17-37. Jesus differentiates between the letter and spirit in two formulas… “You have heard that it was said … But I say unto you.” For the Jews who heard Jesus speak this way, this must have sounded too presumptuous. A carpenter’s son from Nazareth trying to be greater than Moses and the Prophets? Unthinkable! Hence, Jesus begins today’s discourse with a clarification:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5: 17-19)

 

Jesus is not setting aside the Law; but sets it up on a higher plane. He challenges his listeners to follow the spirit of the Law and live rather than follow the letter of the law and become living dead. The challenge of Jesus can be understood better if we take one set of the Laws – the laws prescribed for temple offerings. The Mosaic Law prescribed many details about the type of offering to be made for different occasions. For instance, minute details were given as to how old must the sacrificial lamb be and that it should be without blemish etc. (cf. Lev. 22:21)

The Laws dealt mostly with external requirements. They did not speak much on the internal requirements. Jesus brings the latter into focus. He says: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5: 23-24)

 

This passage is a favourite one of mine in the Sermon on the Mount. It gives us a very high standard of reconciliation. Imagine the scene painted by Jesus, in these verses: You are at the altar to offer your gift. There you remember… Remember what? Remember that you have something against your brother or sister? NO… Remember that your brother or sister has something against you… This is the benchmark. Even when your brother or sister has something against you and you happen to remember it, then you cannot proceed to offer your gift. Your first duty is reconciliation; only then comes the offering.

I was just wondering what would be Jesus’ response, if I asked him, “What if I had something against my brother or sister?” I can well imagine Jesus responding this way: “Well, if that is the case, forget about bringing any gift to the altar. Your first job is to be reconciled even before approaching the altar.” This is a very great challenge for us. If this challenge of Jesus is taken very seriously, then most of our Sunday Masses will have to come to an end by the time we come to the offertory. Almost all of us, including the priest who celebrates Mass, will have non-reconciled relationships. They need to be mended before offering the gifts. We need to become a better gift internally, before we can offer the external gift at the altar.

Throughout today’s gospel, Jesus offers us quite a few challenges. In fact the whole Sermon on the Mount is very challenging. It makes us wonder whether such a life is possible here on earth. It makes us hunger and thirst after such a life here on earth. Such wonder, such hunger and thirst are steps to the altar of holiness where we can offer ourselves as a worthy Offering.

 

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The challenge to live as Salt and Light

by Rev. Fr. L. X. Jerome S. J.

 

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

 

Use of imageries in one’s talks and writings is a special talent. Pope Francis seems to feel at home in this art. His homilies, talks, and writings have been quoted right, left and centre… mainly because of the rich images he has used. Here are just a few samples taken from the first few months of his Petrine ministry:

  • “Some end up sad – sad priests - in some sense becoming collectors of antiques or novelties, instead of being shepherds living with ‘the odour of the sheep’. This I ask you: be shepherds, with the ‘odour of the sheep’, make it real, as shepherds among your flock, fishers of men.” This was the homily given to the Priests during the Chrism Mass on Maundy Thursday morning – two weeks after he was elected Pope.
  • “But who is this God you believe in? An ‘all-over-the-place-god, a 'god-spray' so to speak, who is a little bit everywhere but who no-one really knows anything about?” was the question posed by Pope Francis while celebrating the morning Mass at Santa Martha.
  • An exclusive interview of Pope Francis, conducted by Fr Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal, became very famous due to its candour and rich imageries used. During the interview Fr Spadaro asked Pope Francis: “What kind of church do you dream of?” The Pope answered: “I see the church as a field hospital after battle.” This interview was published on September 19, 2013. 
  • On the same day (September 19) Pope Francis met the newly appointed Bishops who had come to Vatican for a meeting. Towards the end of his talk, he made an earnest appeal to the Bishops, which, once again, caught the attention of the media: “Espouse your community, be profoundly bonded to it!” the Pope said concluding his address. “I beg you, please, to stay among your people. Avoid the scandal of being 'airport bishops'!”

Imageries such as – ‘smell of the sheep’, ‘god-spray’, ‘the church as a field hospital’ and ‘airport bishops’ – have become some of the most quoted phrases of Pope Francis in the first year of his ministry in Rome.

 

Jesus, as we know, was a master story-teller who used rich imageries in his preaching. Due to this, his messages have withstood the test of times and still make a lot of sense. The layers of meaning one can find in his parables and imageries seem unending. Matthew has collated most of the teachings of Jesus in one section (Chapters 5, 6 and 7) as the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. We began with the ‘Beatitudes’ last Sunday. As an apt preparation for the Lenten Season, we reflect on the famous passages from this Sermon today as well as the following three Sundays.

 

In today’s gospel passage - Matthew 5: 13-16 - Jesus uses the famous imageries of Salt and Light. Both have become universal imageries. A deeper analysis of just two of the sentences from this Sunday’s Gospel would be enough for this Sunday’s reflections. “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world…” Jesus did not say that we must be or need to be the salt or the light of the earth. Nor did he say we shall be the salt or the light. He simply said: “YOU ARE the salt and the light”. This is not a condition or a future prediction. This is simply the present reality. You and I, dear friends, are already the salt of the earth and the light of the world. To be salt and light is the defining quality of every disciple of Christ… of every Christian. Hence, it would be helpful to understand what is meant by ‘being salt’ and ‘being light’.

 

The very first quality of salt that comes to mind is its ‘purity’, because it is white and it comes from the combination of two great gifts of nature, namely, the sun and the sea.  Salt was the most primitive of all offerings to the gods.  Jewish sacrifices were offered with salt.  The Orientals made their oaths with salt to ratify them. 

Salt is an essential ingredient of food; but, it cannot become one’s food. It needs to be added in small quantities to food to provide the necessary taste. Just because salt is an essential part of food, it cannot be added more than necessary. An overdose of salt makes the food unpalatable and it is thrown away. Salt also preserves food and has some healing qualities, as in the case of sore throat.

Similarly, a true disciple is an essential part of this world. He or she cannot stand aloof from the world but needs to mingle with this world in a proportionate way. When this proportion is lost, then the world becomes fit for the garbage along with the disciple. When the disciple is present in the world in the proper way, the world can be preserved and, if needed, healed.

 

The moment Jesus talks of us as salt of the earth, he comes up with a warning. What if we lose our saltiness?... Salt diluted beyond the limit, over exposed to elements of nature or exposed to other forces like electricity… can be some of the reasons by which salt can lose its taste. Once again, the parallel between salt and a disciple is clear. The salt that has lost its taste, ‘is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.’

The image of salt getting trampled underfoot, brings to my mind some sections of humanity who, like salt, serve as the essential part of the world and still get trampled by society all the time. I am thinking of those labourers involved in cleaning our roads, toilets etc. I am thinking of the agricultural labourers who toil hard to put food on our tables. If these labourers stop working just for a day, it would almost choke life out of the world. These very same labourers who are the life-line of the world, are denied their life-line and the necessary respect they deserve! They are trampled underfoot!

 

You are the light of the world… is another sentence replete with meaning. Once again, we need to look at the main traits of light. The moment we think of the word ‘light’, the word ‘darkness’ comes to mind. Even if the darkness is overpowering, a tiny lamp is enough to drive away darkness. A lamp does not draw attention to itself, but brings to light all things and persons around it. A lamp – whether it is a candle, an oil lamp, or an electric lamp – is able to spread light only when it burns its energy. All these and other characteristics of ‘light’ can be applied to a true disciple.

 

How to become a light to the world is eloquently answered in today’s first reading from Isaiah:

Isaiah 58:9-10

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”

 

Both the metaphors of salt and light have something very important in common.  If it stays isolated in a shaker, salt doesn't do anything. Only when it enters into contact with food and dissolves in the food can it give flavour to what we eat.  The same thing happens with light.  If it stays closed up and hidden away, it can't illumine anything. Only when it is in the middle of the dark can it illuminate and guide. A Church isolated from the world can be neither salt nor light.

 

Pops Francis has been sending out warnings about the Church that lives closed in on herself, paralyzed by fear, and all too distant from problems and sufferings, thus keeping it from giving flavour to modern life and from offering the true light of the Gospel.  The Pope's response to the ‘closed-up’ Church is: "We need to go out to the fringes".

 

In his Apostolic Exhortation, ‘Evangelii Gaudium’, he has, as if, given a mission statement of the Church: "I prefer a Church that is bruised, hurting, and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures."

 

Pope Francis, in one of his first interviews conducted in person by Fr Antonio Spadaro, S.J., gives us an idea of how the Church can serve as salt and light in today’s context. During the interview Fr Spadaro asked Pope Francis: “What does the church need most at this historic moment?... What kind of church do you dream of?”

“I see clearly,” the pope continued, “that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.... And you have to start from the ground up.”

 

While some world leaders are busy building walls and excluding people based on their race and religion, Pope Francis insists on building bridges and creating a culture of encounter resulting in an inclusive community.

 

Let us be the Church that is able to heal the wounds (Salt) and to warm the hearts (Light) in the world, which is a battle field, waging ‘the third world war’ in bits and pieces!

 

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Beatitudes – ever old and ever new

 by Rev. Fr. L. X. Jerome S. J.

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time

 

This Sunday onwards until we begin the Lenten season, for five Sundays, we are given a special treat during the Sunday Liturgy – namely, the Sermon on the Mount. Today’s Gospel gives us the opening section of this great discourse of Jesus, namely, the famous ‘Beatitudes’! Since most of us are familiar with the ‘Beatitudes’, let us turn our attention to the setting of this discourse – namely, the mountain, as well as Jesus, the Giver of Blessings. Today’s Gospel passage (Matt. 5: 1-12) begins with the words: When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him. He began to teach them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…”

 

Jesus chose the mountain for his discourse… Mountains hold a great magical charm on human beings from time immemorial. We have heard of great sages who had gone to mountain tops seeking ‘enlightenment’. The great silence of the peaks, the pure air and water on mountain tops have been sources of attraction for human beings. From the top of a mountain, our view becomes more enlarged. The lovely aspects of silence, purity and broader vision have prompted many religions to ascribe mountains as the abode of gods.  

 

Harold Kushner, the Jewish Rabbi, and the author of many interesting books, speaks of two cultures – the ‘mountain culture’ and ‘tower culture’ in his book “The Lord is my Shepherd”. He refers to a book titled ‘The Ecology of Eden’ written by Evan Eisenberg, where these two cultures are discussed. “In mountain cultures, people live in God’s world. They regard the world of nature with reverence, the kind of heart-filling feeling we get when we gaze at a mountain range… By contrast, in tower cultures, people live in a man-made environment. They regard nature as raw material awaiting their efforts to reshape and improve it. They spend a great deal of time admiring the work of their own hands, and, as a result, God is hard to find.” (Harold Kushner) People from the tower cultures, in their quest to build higher towers (from Empire StateBuilding to the Burj Dubai) have chipped away mountains. With the disappearance of the mountain – the abode of God – the presence of God is diminishing in the world.

 

So, when we hear of Jesus going up the mountain and sitting down with the people, we are invited to join the people belonging to the ‘mountain culture’. The list of Beatitudes that Jesus gives is about the people from this mountain culture, depending on God and living harmoniously with nature and other human beings.

 

The second aspect we can dwell on from today’s Gospel is – Jesus, the Giver of Blessings. I shall rely heavily on Fr Ron Rolheiser, the Oblate Priest, writer and professor of theology. He has spoken of Jesus as operating out of a ‘Blessed consciousness’. Let me quote extensively from Rolheiser:

 

There’s a Buddhist parable that runs something like this: One day as the Buddha was sitting under a tree, a young, trim soldier walked by, looked at the Buddha, noticed his weight and his fat, and said: “You look like a pig!” The Buddha looked up calmly at the soldier and said: “And you look like God!” Taken aback by the comment, the soldier asked the Buddha: “Why do you say that I look like God?” The Buddha replied: “Well, we don’t really see what’s outside of ourselves, we see what’s inside of us and project it out. I sit under this tree all day and I think about God, so that when I look out, that’s what I see. And you, you must be thinking about other things!”

There’s an axiom in philosophy that asserts that the way we perceive and judge is deeply influenced and colored by our own interiority. That’s why it’s never possible to be fully objective and that’s why five people can witness the same event, see the same thing, and have five very different versions of what happened. Thomas Aquinas (whose feast was celebrated on January 28) expressed this in a famous axiom: Whatever is received is received according to the mode of its receiver.

If this is true, and it is, then, as the Buddhist parable suggests, how we perceive others speaks volumes about what’s going on inside of us. Among other things, it indicates whether we are operating out of a blessed or a cursed consciousness.

Let’s begin with the positive, a blessed consciousness:  We see this in Jesus, in how he perceived and in how he judged. His was a blessed consciousness. (Fr Rolheiser)

 

Right from the moment when the Angel Gabriel came to the young lady Mary to talk about Jesus becoming a human, words of blessings were shared: “Hail full of grace…” (Lk. 1:28) was the first blessing that Mary received from the Angel. Later, her cousin Elizabeth heaped more blessings on Mary: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Lk 1: 42) Hence, right from the moment of conception Jesus was blessed.

 

As the gospels describe it, at his baptism, the heavens opened and God’s voice was heard to say: “This is my blessed one, in whom I take delight.” And, it seems, for the rest of his life Jesus was always in some way conscious of his Father saying that to him: “You are my blessed one!” As a consequence, he was able to look out at the world and say: “Blessed are you when you are poor, or when you are persecuted, or suffering in any way. You are always blessed, no matter your circumstance in life.” He knew his own blessedness, felt it, and, because of that, could operate out of a blessed consciousness, a consciousness that could look out and see others and the world as blessed.

Sadly, for many of us, the opposite is true: We perceive others and the world not through a blessed consciousness but through a cursed consciousness.  We have been cursed and because of that, in whatever subtle ways, we curse others.

If any of us could play back our lives as a video we would see the countless times, especially when we were young, when we were subtly cursed, when we heard or intuited the words: Shut up! Who do you think you are! Go away! You aren’t wanted here! You’re not that important! You’re stupid! You’re full of yourself!  All of these were times when our energy and enthusiasm were perceived as a threat and we were, in effect, shut down.

And the residual result in us is shame, depression, and a cursed consciousness.  Unlike Jesus we don’t see others and the world as blessed. Instead, like the young soldier looking at an overweight Buddha under a tree, our spontaneous judgments are swift and lethal: “You look like a pig!”

Whatever is received is received according to the mode its receiver. Our harsh judgments of others say less about them than they say about us. Our negativity about others and the world speaks mostly of how bruised and wounded, ashamed and depressed, we are – and how little we ourselves have ever heard anyone say to us: “In you I take delight!” (Fr Rolheiser)

 

The Blessings that Jesus articulated on the mountain, have inspired thousands of great souls. One of them is Mohandas Gandhi, who later on became Mahatma Gandhi. For him, as well as to great stalwarts like Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and Archbishop Romero, the Beatitudes were the manifesto of non-violence. It is apt that on the eve of Gandhi’s assassination, which took place on January 30th, this passage is given to us for our reflection.

 

This passage also has inspired many more to come up with modern-day Beatitudes. Pope Francis on his apostolic trip to Sweden, celebrated Mass on November 1, the Feast of All Saints. The best description of the saints, their “identity card”, the Pope said, is found in the Beatitudes from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, which is given as the Gospel for this Feast. In his homily, Pope Francis said that new situations required new energy and a new commitment, and then offered a new list of Beatitudes for modern Christians. Let us close our reflections with the Beatitudes given by Pope Francis:

- Blessed are those who remain faithful while enduring evils inflicted on them by others and forgive them from their heart.

- Blessed are those who look into the eyes of the abandoned and marginalised and show them their closeness.

- Blessed are those who see God in every person and strive to make others also discover him.

- Blessed are those who protect and care for our common home.

- Blessed are those who renounce their own comfort in order to help others.

- Blessed are those who pray and work for full communion between Christians.

 

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Celebrating People’s Power…

by Rev. Fr. L. X. Jerome S. J. 

 

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

 

In the past week, the largest two democracies of the world, namely, India and the U.S., have grabbed media attention for different reasons. Let us come to the U.S. later. First, it is India. In India, especially in Tamil Nadu, the youth have taken up a peaceful protest with utmost control, thus telling the Indian government that people’s power can achieve results. Although the Republic Day of India is celebrated only on January 26, in my opinion, Tamil Nadu had begun its Republic Day Celebrations from January 17.

Republic Day – the special day when the people of India gave themselves the power to rule themselves – calls for celebrations. India does celebrate Republic Day… But, unfortunately, for the last 20 years or more, the Parade in New Delhi is projected as THE CELEBRATION of this wonderful day. This parade does portray the various cultures of the people of India… sure! But, unfortunately, this parade has become more of a show of (show-off) Indian military power to the world! This is VERY UNFORTUNATE… to say the least! The Republic Day Parade is more of a ritual than a real celebration of the Indian Republic – the People’s power. This power is being celebrated in Tamil Nadu by the youth protesting against the ban on ‘Jallikattu’, the bull-fight.

Hats off to the youth of Tamil Nadu, who have not sought the support of any political party as well as the support of the tinsel world. They have taken care not to be divided on lines of caste, religion, political allegiance, fan club etc. They have not resorted to any violence and have gone from strength to strength. To me, this is truly a people’s movement, where no individual steals the limelight. The Central and State governments as well as various MNCs have been forced to take note of this event, and also take stock of their dubious, underhand dealings with people.

 

This Sunday’s Liturgy invites us to consider another people’s ‘movement’ inaugurated by Jesus – namely, the Kingdom of God! Today’s Gospel talks of the way in which Jesus inaugurated his public ministry… by proclaiming his first message and by calling his first disciples. Today’s liturgy gives us an opportunity to think of inaugurations – their style and content.

 

The style of inauguration: In today’s Gospel, Matthew describes the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry with the imagery of light. This imagery was already spoken of by Prophet Isaiah as we hear it from the first reading. The imagery of light for inauguration is a lovely metaphor. I am thinking of two kinds of light, symbolising the spectacular but empty inaugurations and the silent, meaningful ones. The two kinds of light are - lightning and sunlight. Inaugurations as proposed by the commercial, political world can be compared to lightning. Flash, bang… gone. Theoretically speaking, the average lightning bolt contains a billion volts at 3,000 amps, or 3 billion kilowatts of power, enough energy to run a major city for months. (http://www.mikebrownsolutions.com/tesla-lightning.htm) Till date, lightning has caused more damages than being useful. Commercial, political inaugurations can be compared to lightning.

As against this, imagine what sunlight can do and, actually, does to the world. Sunlight comes up not with a bang, not abruptly like a lightning, but very silently, imperceptibly. But, we know that without sunlight nothing can survive on earth. Jesus’ public ministry is compared to the sunlight. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” (Isaiah 9: 2; Matthew 4:16)

 

Another aspect of inauguration is the content: When great leaders appear before the public for the first time, what they say and do count. Their words and actions would almost define what type of a leader he or she would be. My mind goes back to January 20, 1961, when John F.Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th President of the United States. He began his inaugural address with these words: “We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom – symbolizing an end, as well as a beginning – signifying renewal, as well as change.” Towards the end of this inaugural address, he said: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” – a well-known quote. JFK was one of the youngest presidents of the US and hence was looked upon as a much needed change in the U.S. political history. His inaugural speech defined him, in a way!

This brings to mind the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the U.S., on January 20. We have to wait and see whether this ‘inauguration’ is a lightning, ready to cause more damages than a dawn of sunlight that can do wonders!

 

The inaugural words of Jesus in his public ministry were: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4: 17). His first action was to gather a few fishermen with an invitation: “Come, follow me.” Repentance and following of Jesus are two key aspects of Christian life. All of us would easily agree that each Christian is called to repentance; but many of us would hesitate to affirm that every Christian is called to follow Jesus. We would think that ‘following Jesus’ is a privilege of the Religious and Priests.

Repentance and following of Jesus are basic to Christian calling and both are intrinsically connected. Repentance calls for some radical changes. Change is usually challenging. It is easier when these changes are external – like change of one’s profession, abode etc. But, when the change is internal like the one demanded by Jesus, it needs support. We are ready to change for a person whom we love. If we are drawn towards Jesus by love and if we are ready to follow Him, then we would be willing to change from within, even if this is very difficult. We have the examples of Simon, Andrew, James and John, the first Disciples of Jesus, who were willing to change their entire life, giving up their livelihood, their boats, nets… even their father.

 

Change is the cry of the hour… especially in India! Three years back, as India was facing the general elections and just before the Republic Day, the Hindu published an article about some youth who were questioned on what change they would want in India… They had mentioned the changes required at every walk of life from the government as well as from people. The title of the article hits the nail on the head: “Let’s be the change” (The Hindu, Bangalore Edition, Jan.24, 2014). This was the ‘mantra’ of Gandhiji too, namely, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

 

Let the change begin from…. Each of US!

 

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God is not a private property

 

The Epiphany of Our Lord

 

Let us begin our reflection with an anecdote cited by Fr Ron Rolheiser, the Oblate theologian, in his weekly column: Recently, at an academic dinner, I was sitting across the table from a nuclear scientist. At one point, I asked him this question: Do you believe that there’s human life on other planets? His answer surprised me: “As a scientist, no, I don’t believe there’s human life on another planet. Scientifically, the odds are strongly against it. But, as a Christian, I believe there’s human life on other planets. Why? My logic is this: Why would God choose to have only one child?”

 

Why would God choose to have only one child? Good logic. Why indeed would an infinite God, capable of creating and loving beyond all imagination, want to do this only once? Why would an infinite God, at a certain point, say: “That’s enough. That’s my limit. These are all the people I can handle and love! Anything beyond this is too much for me! Now is the time to stop creating and enjoy what I’ve done.”

 

We have heard many stories (news) about UFOs and outer space intelligence. Whenever I read any such news, my curiosity was aroused. I had hardly reflected on God’s role in such ‘outer space beings’. When I read this passage from Rolheiser, it helped me to ‘theologize’ on outer-space beings. Such a reflection brings to mind a God who is capable of and possibly is creating other beings. Such a thought is very liberating and helps us to let God be God, without imposing our limitations on God.

 

This is the liberation given to us by the Feast of the Epiphany, which we celebrate this Sunday. This Feast tells us one basic truth about God. God is not a private property of any human group… not even of the planet earth. As far as God is concerned, the larger the family, the better… the more, the merrier!

 

This idea must have shocked quite a few orthodox Jews. They were very sure that the one and only true God was theirs, EXCLUSIVELY. God must have laughed at this idea; but in His/Her parental love, God would have allowed them to hold on to this ‘exclusivism’. God waited for the opportune time. By inviting the wise men from the East to visit the Divine Babe at Bethlehem, God had broken the myth of exclusivism! God is a true iconoclast, indeed!

 

God cannot be the exclusive treasure of any human group. This message is still very relevant to us, especially in the light of all the divisions created by various individuals and groups who have used God and religion as a political weapon. God is surely not party to any divisive force! Unifying, reconciling… these are God’s ways. Let us pray on the Feast of the Epiphany that the whole human family may live together as one inclusive, divine family. As pilgrims who have traversed the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, let us pray that we become ‘merciful as God’ and learn to embrace the whole human family without any prejudice!

 

Although this feast is mainly about Jesus revealing Himself to the whole world (that’s the meaning of the word ‘Epiphany’), still, popularly, this feast is about the so called ‘Magi’. Very little is given about these persons (Kings? Wise men? Astrologers?) in the Bible. Only Matthew’s Gospel talks about these persons (Matthew 2: 1-12).

Matthew simply introduces these open minded seekers, as ‘wisemen from the East’. There is not even a mention of the number. Tradition has made them not only Kings, but also made them THREE KINGS because in Matthew’s gospel three gifts (gold, frankincense and myrrh) have been mentioned. Keeping this traditional point of view, we can say that today’s gospel talks of FOUR kings – three from the East and one, residing in Jerusalem, namely, Herod.

 

Fr Ron Rolheisser makes a lovely observation on these four persons.

The wise men follow the star, find the new king, and, upon seeing him, place their gifts at his feet. What happens to them afterwards? We have all kinds of apocryphal stories about their journey back home, but these, while interesting, are not helpful. We do not know what happened to them afterwards and that is exactly the point. Their slipping away into anonymity is a crucial part of their gift. The idea is that they now disappear because they can now disappear. They have placed their gifts at the feet of the young king and can now leave everything safely in his hands. His star has eclipsed theirs. Far from fighting for their former place, they now happily cede it to him. Like old Simeon, they can happily exit the stage singing: Now, Lord, you can dismiss your servants! We can die! We're in safe hands!

We can add to this list, St John the Baptist, who proclaimed “He must increase and I must decrease” (John 3:30), St Paul the Apostle who said: “It is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20), as well as millions of Saints down the centuries.

 

In contrast to this glorious band of witnesses, we have Herod who did not wish to give an inch to God. Fr Rolheiser talks about Herod thus: And Herod, how much to the contrary! The news that a new king has been born threatens him at his core since he is himself a king. The glory and light that will now shine upon the new king will no longer shine on him. So what is his reaction? Far from laying his resources at the feet of the new king, he sets out to kill him. Moreover, to ensure that his murderers find him, he kills all the male babies in the entire area. An entire book on anthropology might be written about this last line. Fish are not the only species that eats its young! But the real point is the contrast between the wise men and Herod: The former see new life as promise and they bless it; the latter sees new life as threat and he curses it.

 

We have just begun a new year. Do we see the New Year as a blessing or a threat? The media have heaped on us a depressing account of the past year. It has also managed to slip in some anxieties about the New Year. Are we so dumb as to go along these lines and begin the New Year with trepidation? Or, are we ready to drench in the shower of mercy that comes from above? Are we willing to surrender to the divine and then joyfully slip away into anonymity? Or, are we going to cling on to our own stardom – whether recognised as such by others or not?

 

Every New Year opens with promises and resolutions. It is one thing to make resolutions and quite a different thing to put them to practice. When the wisemen decided to follow the star, they must have faced quite many questions and ridicules. But, they did not give up. Their journey must have been torturous. Following a star is possible mostly at night. Stars are not visible during the day. This means that these wise men must have done most of their journey in the night – not an easy option given their mode of transportation etc. It must have been very difficult to gaze upon one little star among the hundreds on a clear sky. What if the sky was not clear? Then they would have to wait until clouds and mist clear. So, their journey must have taken nights, many nights. Relentlessly they pursued their decision to follow the star. This alone is reason enough to celebrate!

 

On January 6, last Friday, the Feast of the Epiphany was celebrated in Vatican. Pope Francis celebrated Mass in St Peter’s Basilica. He spoke about the journey of the wisemen in the following words: These men saw a star that made them set out. The discovery of something unusual in the heavens sparked a whole series of events. The star did not shine just for them, nor did they have special DNA to be able to see it. As one of the Church Fathers rightly noted, “the Magi did not set out because they had seen the star, but they saw the star because they had already set out” (cf. Saint John Chrysostom). Their hearts were open to the horizon and they could see what the heavens were showing them, for they were guided by an inner restlessness. They were open to something new.

 

The term ‘star’ is used to indicate someone or something special. Unfortunately, the commercial world uses this term very generously and frivolously… It creates too many stars – mega stars, super stars – mainly from the entertainment world and the sports field! It is also unfortunate that lots of people ‘follow these stars’ and reach nowhere. The less said about this, the better.

For us living in the 21st century, real stars in the sky are rare to see. With our city lights blinding our eyes, and the smog constantly spreading a blanket over our heads, it is hard to see clear skies and stars. To see the stars, we must get out of our cities… and there seems to be no time for that. We have no time to look up. We are dazzled and even blinded by too many artificial stars and hence real stars have receded from our view. We hardly look up.

 

A parting thought on ‘following a star’ is this: When we begin to follow a star, let us look for real, inspiring stars even if this means lots of challenges and lots of hardships.

“This is my quest

To follow that star

No matter how hopeless

No matter how far”

"The Impossible Dream"

from MAN OF LA MANCHA (1972) written by Joe Darion

 

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A New Time-piece to register only Good Things


January 1 - Mary, the Mother of God

 

“The Lord bless you and keep you: The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you: The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.” (Numbers 6: 24-26)

How blessed we are, to hear such a blessing on the first day of the New Year during the Liturgy. What is special about this blessing is that it was ‘taught’ by God to Moses and through him to Aaron and his sons.

 

The first day of January, is a Quadruple Festival. Yes, we have four good reasons to celebrate this day. The first reason… this is the beginning of another year in the Gregorian calendar. This is accepted as the New Year Day in most countries. We also have various other calendars that specify different dates as the New Year Day – the Chinese, the Tamil, the Telugu… etc. It would surely help the human spirit if each of the 365 or 366 days of the year is celebrated as ‘first days’. A fresh beginning helps to revive the human spirit.

When we think of the New Year Day, we surely associate this with thoughts of ‘beginning’. We need to reflect whether the New Year ‘begins’ within us or outside of us. The media has been busy for the past few days on ‘looking back’ on 2016 as well as projecting 2017. Especially in India, there is the discussion on what the stars foretell for 2017! It is so easy to let outside forces to lead us and govern us than to take the responsibility for our own life.

 

On the New Year Day, someone wrote a short prayer: Thank you, Lord, for your New Life, a New Year… I want to ask you, Lord, to give me a new timepiece, too. One that will keep time only when your love passes through me, reaching out to others; the time I spend listening, sharing joys and sorrows. Give me a watch that will set my mind and heart in the present moment – that’s ‘you’, being born again each day. Let it be my alarm clock, waking me up from the sleep of my daily routines and making me available to give my time and heart to others. Thank You, Lord, for the gift of time that I hope I’ll share generously with others.

 

A mother heard her son saying the night prayers on the eve of the New Year. He was telling God what he planned to do the next year and how God could help him do this and that. The mother interrupted, saying, “Son, don’t bother giving God instructions; just report for duty.”

 

The New Year invites all of us to express good intentions and resolutions. “Just report for duty!” Each new day is “a miniature eternity”- 24 hrs, 1440 minutes, 86.400 seconds. During that time, there are blessings to be received, there are opportunities to be grasped, challenges to be accepted, internal peace to quiet nerves, etc.

 

‘Reporting for duty’ is what we hear in today’s Gospel (Luke 2: 16-21) The shepherds reported back for duty; Mary “kept pondering in her heart.” We, too, are here to report for duty and we need to learn what things to treasure, time to reflect. The time is now. Time is not the problem! It’s a matter of priorities! What are our priorities? Once these priorities are clearly lined up, then the whole year can be spent in relative peace and serenity. This does not mean our life will be a highway strewn only with flowers of bright colours. There would be crosses planted along the way.

 

There’s a story about Auguste Rodin, the great sculptor whose most famous work is called ‘The Thinker’. It seems that one day Rodin noticed a large crucifix that had been discarded in a pile of trash. Although it was terribly marred and defaced, Rodin perceived that it could be restored to its original beauty. Consequently, he and some companions carried the cross to his home, but the cross was too big for the house. What did Robin do? Rather than returning it to the trash heap, Robin decided to knock some walls and raise the roof of his house to make room for the Cross!

 

Sometimes we have to welcome a cross into our homes – or each of us could be that cross! Let’s try to restore it.  It’s the ‘Way of the Cross’ that leads us to HIM.  The Church is not a travel agency taking us on a conducted tour, all comforts and perks guaranteed.  We travel not by sight but by faith: by going the extra mile, more than once in a while, turning the other cheek, more than once in a while…returning good for evil, more than once in a while, loving the enemy, more than once in a while… Thus, we can see, that there are enough challenges presented to us on New Year’s Day!

 

The second reason to celebrate January 1st is that this is the eighth day after Jesus’ birth. On this day, according to the Gospel of Luke (Lk. 2: 21), the child was taken to the temple for circumcision and he was given the name Jesus. Although the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is shifted to January 3rd, we can celebrate the Divine Child being given the special name, Jesus!

 

The third reason is that the first day of the year is now dedicated to praying for world peace. Although world peace is still a distant dream, we can surely celebrate this dream and pray fervently that this dream may be realised sooner than later.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the World Day of Peace begun by Blessed Pope Paul VI on 1st January, 1968. For this year, Pope Francis has published his message with the title: Nonviolence: a Style of Politics for Peace. The moment we hear of the words, Politics, Peace and Nonviolence, we tend to think of politicians, peace negotiations and non-violent movements. But, the message of Pope Francis emphasizes clearly that peace, and nonviolence must be born within each of us. Here is an excerpt from Pope’s message:

Jesus himself lived in violent times. Yet he taught that the true battlefield, where violence and peace meet, is the human heart: for “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come” (Mk 7:21)… Whoever accepts the Good News of Jesus is able to acknowledge the violence within and be healed by God’s mercy, becoming in turn an instrument of reconciliation. In the words of Saint Francis of Assisi: “As you announce peace with your mouth, make sure that you have greater peace in your hearts”.  (No. 3)

 

The fourth and last reason, the Feast of Mary, the Mother of God – the official Feast of January 1. Of all the four reasons, this stands out as the prime reason given by the Catholic Church. Of all the four reasons, this one seems the most intriguing. The very reason the Church gives as a reason for celebration, would have been a reason for condemnation in Mary’s time. She became a mother defying not only natural laws, but also the laws of her Jewish society. This is an example to tell us that we can discover or invent reasons to celebrate life against all odds.

 

Christmas and New Year is a peak season for sharing greetings. Millions of greetings fill our communication lines. We greet those we love and admire. Here is a greeting to Mary in the form of a letter:

Dear Mother Mary,

I wish to pen these few lines to show you how much we love and admire you for being such a great Mother. On the very first day of the calendar year we wish to think of you as the Mother of God and celebrate it. But, I was just wondering whether it was possible for you to celebrate this very same fact – becoming the Mother of God. For you, the days following your meeting with Angel Gabriel must have been quite fearful and uncertain.

The land in which you lived is still surrounded by fear and uncertainty. We realise that it is not easy for people to live in war zones – especially for young girls. You lived as a young lady in Roman occupied territory. You must have spent days and even nights in constant fear.

Today we celebrate your Motherhood and we have even built great basilicas in your name. Some of these basilicas are marvels in marbles and granite stones. But, if the people of your times had learnt that you had become a mother before your wedding, they would have used stones for a different purpose. It is possible for us to build thousands of churches in your name since you had built yourself into a temple of God trusting only on God.

Rightly has William Wordsworth written lovely lines about you:

Mother! whose virgin bosom was uncrost

With the least shade of thought to sin allied;

Woman! above all women glorified,

Our tainted nature's solitary boast;…

 

Not only Wordsworth, but thousands upon thousands of artists have been inspired to sing your praises through their masterpieces of art. You are such an inspiration for all of us, Mom!

 

With love and admiration,

Your fortunate children.

 

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Life-affirming Dreams

by Rev. Fr. L. X. Jerome S. J.

 

4th Sunday of Advent

 

Christmas is just around the corner… Next Sunday we celebrate Christmas. ‘Around the corner’ is a lovely expression to add excitement and expectation. I am sure thousands are children are spending these last few days and nights dreaming of their Christmas gifts. They are also dreaming of Santa Claus bringing these gifts to them. Of course, some grown ups are trying the kill these dreams of children, calling those dreams dangerously childish. In general, adults look at dreams as childish. Imagine a world without dreams! It would be unimaginable!

When I began thinking of this week’s reflection, a news headline captured my attention. Terminally-ill boy, five, dies in Santa Claus' arms after fulfilling one last wish to see him from Mail Online. It was reported as happened in a hospital in Tennesse, U.S.A. But later reports raised doubts about the veracity of this news story. Still, the news of a five year old boy dying in the arms of Santa Claus (a gentleman by name Eric Schmitt-Matzen) was moving as well as uplifting. I had to reluctantly delete this story from my reflection.

 

My attention was equally grabbed by another news items that appeared in various news papers.  

“Indian businessman spends daughter's marriage budget on 90 houses for the homeless”

Ajay Munot, a wealthy wholesale trader of cloth and wheat in the Aurangabad district of eastern India, had planned to spend Rs 70-80 lakh — the equivalent of more than £93,000 — on a lavish wedding for his daughter. But instead, Mr Munot decided to instead spend the money on helping the region's poor. He built 90 houses for the homeless poor. His daughter Shreya and her husband handed over the keys of the houses to the poor. Shreya said that that was the best wedding gift her Dad had given her and that the blessings she received from the poor no money could buy!

 

When I read this news, I was pleasantly surprised, even stunned to believe it. Why was I stunned? Because, things like this do not happen in the normal world. ‘Normal’ is the catch word! What is normal? To spend lavishly on the wedding is normal, while spending money on such noble deeds sound more like a dream-stuff.

After reading the news, I also glanced through the comments left by readers. The comments began with positive appreciation. Here is a specimen: There is hope for humanity yet! Good luck to the newly weds. What an admirable start!

But, within a few hours, there were comments like these:

Marriage ends in divorce anyway.

Single house units wasting precious land and infrastructure is the wrong way to go anywhere in the world!

I have visited this place. He hand picked Hindu families. He completely ignored the Sikh, Christian or Muslim families.

 

When we read the occasional positive news from our otherwise negative media, our minds and hearts get elated. But soon the ‘adult’ in us begin to impute reasons and pass judgements, sometimes, very uncharitable. The ‘adult’ in us seems to be fettered by the so called ‘normal’, negative day to day world and refuse to take flights of fantasy or dare to dream!

 

We are talking of dreams today – dreams of an adult! Yes, today’s Gospel talks of Joseph meeting an angel in his dreams. The New Testament identifies Joseph as ‘the just man’. Joseph is a silent saint. No word of his is recorded in the gospels. Indeed no word was needed, since his whole life was a great Gospel!

Joseph is honoured by the Church as well by popular devotion as the patron and guardian of so many aspects of human life. He is the patron of the Catholic Church, of virgins, of families, of labourers, of immigrants, of holy death and many, many more... I wish to add one more to this list. I wish to honour St Joseph as the guardian and patron of dreams. It is interesting that both Joseph, the Patriarch (in the Old Testament) as well as Joseph, the Husband of Mary (in the New Testament) are portrayed as ‘dreamers’.

Joseph is mentioned in Matthew’s gospel only on three occasions. In all of them, he is portrayed as being visited by the angel of God in his dreams. One of those instances is given as today’s gospel:

Matthew 1: 18-24. Two other instances where Joseph is mentioned, also speak of the angel visiting him in dreams: Matthew 2: 13-14 and Matthew 2: 19-21

 

Analysis of these three passages will give us good reasons to say that Joseph is indeed the guardian and patron of dreams. Joseph must have felt extremely happy to have been betrothed to Mary, probably the most admired young girl in Nazareth. But his joy was short lived. His dreams of having a glorious life with Mary, came crashing down when he learnt that Mary was pregnant. It was left to him to either make this public or solve this problem more quietly. He decided on the latter. He was a gentleman to the core. If Joseph had decided on making this public, he would have been honoured; but Mary would have faced death by stoning.

As Joseph was struggling to solve this problem, the angel came to him in a dream. If Joseph was a selfish person thinking only of his honour and did not care about Mary, the angel would have found it difficult to enter Joseph’s conscious or subconscious world. God would find it difficult to enter a selfish person’s heart. The more selfless and sensitive a heart, the brighter the chances of divine interventions… not only during waking hours but also during dreams!

 

On December 15, last Thursday, Pope Francis met around 7000 persons connected with the famous ‘Child Jesus Hospital’ in Rome. During his talk, he referred to the Sunday’s Gospel and elaborated on a life shaped by dreams:

“I would recommend two ingredients (for a Christian life). The first is to keep alive the dreams. Dreams are never anesthetized, here anaesthesia is prohibited! God, I feel in Sunday's Gospel, communicates sometimes through dreams; but above all God invites us to realize big dreams, even if difficult. … I like to think that God has dreams for each of us. A life without dreams is not worthy of God; a life weary and resigned, without enthusiasm is not a Christian life.

“I would add a second ingredient, after the dreams: the gift. One can live chasing two different goals: with primary emphasis on having or giving. … We are always faced with this dilemma: on the one hand to do something for one’s own interests, to success, to be recognized; on the other, follow the intuition to serve, to give, to love… Every day you can leave the house with the heart a little 'inward looking, or with an open heart, ready to meet, to donate. It gives much more joy to live with an open heart than with closed hearts! Do you agree? I wish you a Christmas as well, to live with an open heart, preserving this beautiful family spirit, and thank you so much.”

 

All human beings dream. Then why make Joseph the patron of dreams? I can think of two reasons. There could surely be more.

Reason 1: Joseph was capable of interpreting his dreams as good news even during his agony. For many of us this may not be easy. When we are hemmed in by trials all around us, we tend to lose our normal, day to day activities, especially our sleep. Even if we manage to get some sleep, we may get more nightmares than dreams. Joseph must have been in such a predicament after learning that Mary was pregnant. Still, he recognised his dreams as divine promptings and interventions. Only persons without deceit, persons who are just, are capable of this. Don’t we wish we could be like Joseph?

Reason 2: It is easy to dream dreams; but not easy to act on them. In all the three gospel passages we cited, Joseph woke up from sleep and followed the instructions from the angel. If these instructions were easy, cosy things, then we won’t mind following them. Easy, cosy instructions are dictated to us through our ‘commercial dreams’… a cream would change our complexion in a matter of days, or a toothpaste would make our friends flock around us all the time. We tend to follow these dreams, don’t we? The instructions that Joseph received in his dreams were demanding, tough decisions – taking a pregnant woman as his wife, taking a baby and his mother at night and travelling to a strange land… Don’t we wish we could be like Joseph? Don’t we wish to honour St Joseph, the Patron of dreams?

 

By recognising his dreams as divine promptings, and by taking concrete actions on his dreams, Joseph saved not only Mary and Jesus, but also saved the world by letting the Saviour become ‘Emmanuel’ among us! May St Joseph, the Patron of Dreams, help us dream dreams and be ready to pay the price to make them come true!

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Purchasing Christmas

By Rev. Fr. L. X. Jerome S. J.

 

The Second Sunday of Advent

 

"The old American Dream . . . was the dream of men and women content to accumulate their modest fortunes a little at a time, year by year by year. The new dream was the dream of instant wealth, won in a twinkling by audacity and good luck. [This] golden dream . . . became a prominent part of the American psyche only after Sutter's Mill."

This is a quote from The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream, written by Henry William Brands. The golden dream began on December 5, 1848. On that day, in a message before the U.S. Congress, US President James K. Polk confirmed that large amounts of gold had been discovered in California. This rush for gold resulted in thousands dying even without seeing gold. This rush was also the reason for the massacre of thousands of native Americans. The rush for gold, the dream of instant wealth, drives large number of people to the shores of the U.S. even today. 

Two fables related to gold come to my mind and both have also been stories of avarice – Midas Touch and the Goose that laid Golden Eggs. The lessons from these fables have very little impact on the commercial world which is always on the run, rushing to make hay whether the sun shines or not. 

 

Here is a news item which was published a few years back in one of the Catholic news websites - Catholic News Service: Meaning of season lost by rushing Christmas celebration, bishop says

SALT LAKE CITY (CNS) -- Salt Lake City Bishop John C. Wester (Now, Archbishop of Santa Fe) has urged Catholics to hold off celebrating the Christmas season until it officially begins on the church calendar Dec. 24.

In his first pastoral letter as Salt Lake City's bishop, he urged the state's Catholics to keep true to the spirit of Advent -- a season of preparation which he said has been "neglected in many places" and often "overshadowed by the holiday season."

In the letter, Bishop Wester described the Christmas holiday season as one where many "rush from one thing to the next," stirring momentum "to get all the decorations up, celebrate the event and quickly dismantle all the decorations" to move to the next event.

 

In today’s Gospel John the Baptist also speaks of ‘rushing’… “The kingdom of heaven is AT HAND” is his warning. But his plea for making haste is for repenting and ‘straightening things out’ and not for grabbing and accumulating as suggested by the commercial world. 

Given the least chance, the commercial world would turn everything into a commodity. I would like to share with you three world events which have been ‘commercialised’. These are simply random samples. When the Berlin wall came down in 1989, pieces of that wall were sold as souvenirs. I would not be surprised if counterfeit pieces of Berlin Wall were sold! There have also been rumours of how the debris of World Trade Centre, New York (Sep.11, 2001) were made into souvenirs and SOLD. When Bl.Mary MacKillop was made the first Saint of Australia (October, 2010), there were very many news items as to who owned the copyright for the image of the new Saint. Berlin wall, WTC debris, St Mary Mackillop… nothing is left out of the purview of the commercial world.

 

For the new generation which is ‘wired’ all the time, the commercial world has come up with the invention called ‘virtual reality’. 75 years back, 1941, December 7, the Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbour. It was a rude shock for the U.S. government and they retorted by entering full swing into World War II. The ‘Newseum’ in Washington D.C. is offering a ‘virtual reality’ show of "Remembering Pearl Harbor," an exhibit running from Dec.5 to Dec.11.

It is very disconcerting to see that the commercial world tends to turn all human experiences into ‘commodities’ – either selling them as tangible souvenirs or intangible ‘virtual reality’ experiences. It is a pity that they have made all our Feasts – especially Christmas – into commercial ventures.

 

Let us come back to Archbishop Wester. For the commercial world, what the Archbishop said would be pretty ‘heretical’. If the commercial world gets a chance, they would kidnap the Archbishop and keep him under check until Christmas sales is over.  But, they would not go to that extent, since they know how to drown out voices like that of Archbishop Wester, with their sales messages. In the Gospel today, we meet John the Baptist who also challenged the easy going lifestyle of the religious leaders and Herod. Although he was only ‘a voice in the wilderness’, he was quite loud and clear. Hence he needed to be silenced before he became a greater threat. This was achieved sooner than later during the birthday party of Herod.

 

The commercial world proposes very different preparations for Christmas than the ones proposed by Archbishop Wester or John the Baptist. We need to turn away from these commercial messages to the Gospel message that calls for mending our ways: A voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.” (Mt. 3:3) Once the path is set right, then decorations can start… not the other way around, as the commercial world tells us.

 

My closing thoughts are about the ‘fantastic’ dream of Prophet Isaiah given in the first reading for this Sunday. This passage is inspiring and self-explanatory. I don’t think I shall spoil the beauty of this passage by trying to ‘explain’ or ‘interpret’ this. I would like to make one comment, though. I used the label ‘fantastic’ for this dream since it sounds like a lovely fantasy, meaning, that this can only be a dream, or, can be a ‘virtual reality’ and CANNOT become a reality. But, on second thought, why not? So many dreams proposed by the commercial world are also fantastic. If we can believe in those fantasies, why not give a fair chance to the ‘fantasy’ of Isaiah?

Isaiah 11: 1-9

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. 

The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him - the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, 

the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD -

and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. 

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; 

but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth...

The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, 

the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. 

The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. 

The infant will play near the cobra’s den, the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. 

They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

 

Last week Isaiah gave us the dream of swords being turned into ploughshares. This week we are given another dream to long for. Let good dreams flow in and out of the human family as we prepare for Christmas!

 

 

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Meeting Peace, peacefully
by Rev. Fr. L. X. Jerome S. J.

 

The First Sunday of Advent

 

Recently, some of my friends had sent me via Whatsapp, a picture with a caption. The picture showed a snake displaying its seven-headed hood on a roadside. The caption below the picture said that that snake was found in Honduras and a seven-headed snake is a sign that the end of the world was imminent. On closer look, I could easily find out that the picture was not taken in Honduras, but in India. I made further ‘investigation’ into this picture and found out that this was the ‘cut-and-paste’ work of a person who knew a bit of ‘photo-shop’, but done rather clumsily. What was more disturbing is the fact that this picture has been doing quite a few rounds in the web for the past four to five years with many other captions. This time it was ‘the imminent end’.

With our high-tech communication gadgets and applications, we are flooded with pictures, videos and texts every day. This flood, I am afraid, sweeps us off our feet and we add to this flood without a second thought. When we receive a message, we are keen on sharing it with others immediately without taking time to verify its veracity, source etc. Thus we seem to spread enough unfounded rumours and cause confusions. 

 

When we witness ‘unusual’ events, our curiosity gets tickled more than our reason. We tend to give facile ‘interpretations’ to those events, especially labelling them as symptoms of the ‘end-times’ or ‘doomsday’ and pass them on to others. What is our understanding of the ‘end-times’? This Sunday’s liturgy gives us an opportunity to face this important question with calmness. This Sunday we begin the Advent Season and with that a new liturgical year. The beginning of a liturgical year, paradoxically, talks of the end. 

 

End-times, doomsday… these words flood our minds with doom and destruction. I am not sure when the world would come to an end. It can be tomorrow or after a million years or it may not end at all. But, I am sure that my life, your life, all life will come to an end. How do we look upon this end? Are we just going to vanish into thin air? Or, are we going to meet our Creator? If it is seen as a meeting, then again, we need to ask another question whether this meeting is a joyous expectation or a dreaded encounter. 

Great Saints and sages have shown us the way as to how to face this end, how to face one’s death. 

Once John Wesley, the co-founder of the Methodists, was asked what he would do if he knew that that was his last day on earth. He replied, "At 4 o'clock I would have some tea. At 6 I would visit Mrs. Brown in the hospital. Then at 7:30 I would conduct a mid-week prayer service. At 10 I would go to bed and would wake up in glory." 

Here is an incident from the life of St.Philip Neri. (My friend told me that he had heard the same story attributed to another saint. I guess all saints are of the same mould.): While Philip was playing cards with his friends, one of them asked him what he would do if he knew that his death was imminent. Without any hesitation, Philip told him that he would continue playing cards. 

I can well imagine that if Philip had died playing cards, he would simply continue playing cards on the other side of the grave as well. Only his companions would have changed to… God and angles!

 

Let us beg of God to give us this enlightenment!

 

Do the final days of the world bring in only doom and destruction? Prophet Isaiah does not think so. Here is the first reading for this Sunday.

Isaiah 2: 2-5

In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. 

Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” 

The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 

He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.

Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the LORD.

 

The last days can be seen as doom and destruction or as fulfilment. The scene imagined by the Prophet is so comforting and soothing, especially the final verses where he thinks of a world without war. Isn’t this what all of us long for? The situation in most parts of the world is very volatile. Even a small spark is enough to set off a series of wars. Pope Francis, on quite a few occasions have spoken about the ‘third world war’ being fought in bits and pieces all over the world – the worst being in Syria.

Isaiah’s words are very inspiring as well as challenging. He talks of how destructive efforts (war) can be turned into productive efforts (agriculture). Swords into ploughshares… spears into pruning hooks (sickles). If we can convert all the war gadgets into agricultural gadgets…? If there is no more war training that kills, but only training for nourishing life? This is the desire, the challenge expressed by the Prophet. Swords and spears becoming agricultural tools is not a guarantee that war would stop. We have known that even ploughshares and sickles have been used in caste wars in India. Hence, ultimately, it is our will power which will pave way for peace and prosperity for all. 

 

The vision that Isaiah has portrayed is a good beginning for our Advent… the Season in which we look forward to the Coming of Christ. “He comes, comes ever comes.” (Tagore) He comes in various forms and it is up to us to recognise his coming, his presence in our daily life. Last week the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy came to a close. Starting from the Pope, many Bishops and Priests have been insisting on the fact that the Jubilee may have ended but not Mercy. The Apostolic Letter of Pope Francis – ‘Misericordia et misera’ speaks of this ‘continuation’ in powerful words:

“… what we have celebrated during the Holy Year, a time rich in mercy, … must continue to be celebrated and lived out in our communities. Mercy cannot become a mere parenthesis in the life of the Church; it constitutes her very existence, through which the profound truths of the Gospel are made manifest and tangible. Everything is revealed in mercy; everything is resolved in the merciful love of the Father.” (MeM 1)

 

“Mercy cannot become a mere parenthesis in the life of the Church; it constitutes her very existence…” Very powerful words that define the reason for the Church’s existence. Similarly, mercy needs to become the heart-beat of not only the Christian world, but also of the whole world! May the Advent season we have begun envelop the world with mercy!  

 

Approaching the Throne of Mercy

by Rev. Fr. L. X. Jerome S. J.

 

The Feast of Christ the Universal King

 

Loyola College, Chennai, can be proud of so many assets. The Church of Christ the King, at the centre of the campus, is surely one of the best, if not THE best, among those assets. The larger-than-life-size figure of Christ, standing above the main altar with his majestic robe is very impressive. A life-sized statue of the crucified Christ is placed on the left of the altar at ground level. I have seen many students and others standing at the foot of the cross, touching the feet of the crucified Christ and praying.

The Feast of Christ the King brings to mind these two statues in Loyola Church. While Christ the Crucified is so accessible, Christ the King stands beyond easy reach. There is, perhaps, a lesson to be learnt in how these two statues are placed. I have an interesting fantasy: Suppose I take Jesus to Loyola Church and show him both these statues and ask him which one of these two statues would be his favourite… or which one of them would truly represent the Kingship of Christ… he would simply smile at me and ask, “Have you read today’s Gospel?”

 

Yes, dear friends, not only the Gospel for this year, but the Gospel passages prescribed for the Feast of Christ the King in all the three cycles - A, B, and C - give us a clear picture of what this feast is all about. Today’s gospel is a scene taken from Calvary (Luke 23: 35-43). Last year’s Gospel was the trial scene of Jesus with Pilate (John 18: 33-37) and next year’s Gospel talks of the Last Judgement (Matthew 25: 31-46). In all the three Gospels, there is hardly a hint of pomp and glory. That is the core of this Feast. 

 

All through the life of Christ he avoided, like plague, the idea of being made a king. Right now five instances flash across my mind. The first one is from Matthew. Soon after Jesus was born, the wise men from the East came looking for the ‘King’. Although the star was leading them, their own pre-conceived notions of a king must have taken them to Jerusalem and to Herod’s palace. The capital city and the palace of the king… where else can one look for a king? They asked Herod: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2: 2) Their innocent question set in motion the massacre of the Holy Innocents. 

The second instance of Christ facing the danger of becoming a king is reported by John. Jesus had fed thousands of people through a miracle. After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself. (John 6: 14-15)

The third occasion was on the streets of Jerusalem as recorded in all the four Gospels. The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival, heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!” (John 12: 12-13)

 

Both in the second as well as the third instances Jesus knew full well that his people were looking for quick solutions to their problems and hence were swayed by the frenzy of the moment. Such ‘loyalty’, Jesus knew, would vanish at the first sign of a problem. It came within days of the glorious entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. The very same streets which resounded with ‘Hosanna’, either fell silent or turned hostile with the chant of ‘crucify him’, prompted by the Pharisees and the religious leaders. Talk of crowd psychology, where ‘loyalty’ is wafer thin!

 

The fourth instance of Jesus facing the idea of kingship was in front of Pilate. We reflected on this passage last year. “You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (John 18: 37) Jesus was trying to tell Pilate how he was mistaken in calling him a king. But Pilate was too pre-occupied with how he should please his emperor, Caesar.

 

The fifth instance is given in today’s Gospel (Luke 23: 35-43). Jesus was hanging on the cross. The inscription over his head read: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews! What an irony! What Jesus was running away from, all his life, is now nailed along with him on the cross. On Calvary, that day, his kingship was ridiculed by the Roman soldiers. These soldiers had a clear idea of a king or an emperor. They had served quite a few of them. This man on the cross? A king? Tell me a better joke!… They must have laughed their heart out, if they had one.

In the midst of such noisy ridicules and taunts, came the feeble voice of one of the crucified persons with a petition to the King: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23: 42) When those around Jesus could not even recognise a human being in the form of the crucified one, how come this man saw a King?

We have heard from history that some of the kings and leaders, by the dignity they showed in times of great trials, even as they walked to their gallows, have earned the respect of their worst enemies. Such was their nobility! They were truly kings! The magnanimity shown by Jesus on the cross must have influenced the ‘good thief’ to submit such a beautiful petition to the King.

 

In all these five instances of the Gospels, we hardly see Jesus responding to any of them (except in the case of Pilate… and since Pilate was scared of facing the ‘truth’, Jesus could not make any honest impression on him!). In the last instance, on Calvary, Jesus responded to the ‘good thief’… and, what a response! Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23: 43) Jesus exercised his regal power to assure the criminal of eternal redemption. When death beckons people, quite many of them become enlightened!

 

Here is a lovely anecdote on how a dying person gets enlightened by a movie: 

The King of Kings is a silent film directed by Cecil B.De Mille in 1927.  It is a religious movie about the last weeks of Jesus on earth. It was a production acclaimed by world-famed scholars, the press and the public in the U. S. and abroad, as the most ambitious presentation of the final years of the life of Jesus ever pictured on the screen. It was seen by over a billion people all over the world. De Mille claimed that the most important tribute to the movie he had ever received came from a woman who had only a few days to live. Her nurse wheeled her to a hall in the hospital to see the movie. After viewing the whole movie she wrote to the producer De Mille: “Thank you sir, thank you for your King of Kings. It has changed my expected death from a terror to a glorious anticipation.” 

This dying woman shared the feelings of the good thief who heard the promise of Jesus: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Both of them were suffering, both expected death and both received new hope from the dying King of kings. 

The criminal gives us a lesson in how to look for Christ the King and his Kingdom in the most ‘un-kingly’ circumstances. We pray that God, the Eternal King, helps us become humble enough to learn the lessons given by the criminal.

 

Two little P.S.s: November 20, this Sunday, Pope Francis closes the Holy Door in St Peter’s Basilica and thus brings to close the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. Quite a few Cardinals and Bishops who, last Sunday, officiated in the closing of holy doors around the world, have expressed the following idea in various ways: Although we close the Holy Doors made of wood or metal, we need to keep the door of our hearts, made of flesh and blood, open, since the Jubilee can end, but not Mercy! 

November 20, is the Universal Children's Day. November 14, the birthday of Jawaharlal Nehru, is celebrated as Children’s Day in India. When we use the word ‘celebrate’ along with Children’s Day, some uneasiness creeps in. We are sadly aware that millions of children have anything but ‘celebration’ in their life. On November 16, last Wednesday, Pope Francis, during the General Audience, made a special appeal for children. Here are his own words:

"I appeal to everyone’s conscience, to institutions and families, so that children are always protected and their welfare is protected, so that they never fall into forms of slavery, recruitment into armed groups or mistreated. I hope that the international community remain vigilant over these lives, ensuring every child the right to a school education so that their growth is serene and they can look confidently to the future". 

 

May Christ the King, born in a manger and endured very tough childhood, and now seated on the Throne of Mercy, help millions of children to tide over their insurmountable odds. May we continue to approach the Throne of Mercy to replenish our hearts, so that we can continue the Jubilee of Mercy in the days to come, especially for the sake of needy children!
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Self-inviting Jesus

by Rev. Fr. L. X. Jerome

 

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

 

October 29, 30 and 31, the Festival of Lights (Deepavali or Diwali) is celebrated by the Indians. Wish you all a meaningful celebration of the Festival of Lights. For the past few weeks, there have been some instructive, short videos shared in social networks, on how to celebrate Deepavali in a more mature way. One of them talked about abstaining from bursting crackers which disturb animals and birds. When I saw this video, I was questioning within myself: why we don’t speak of babies, senior citizens, patients in hospitals and pavement dwellers who get disturbed by the continuous noise of the crackers. How many huts go up in flames when the firework from a nearby bungalow, ‘misfires’ and lands on a thatched roof. Perhaps there are other videos talking about this and I did not get to see them.

One of those videos caught my attention to a great extent. It depicts a young man who piles a few 100 Rupee notes on the pavement, and sets them on fire. Another man, carrying bags of crackers, runs to him and asks him whether the young man is out of his mind by setting fire to the currency notes. The young man points to the bag of crackers and says, “Do you think you are sane in spending money on these things?”

The young man then goes on to explain how, with the money spent on crackers, which again amounts to burning money, he could have bought food and clothing for a few poor people and made their Deepavali happier. As he says these lines, we see the young man sharing packets of clothes and food items with some very poor people. Many of those poor, senior citizens bless the young man whole-heartedly. What better joy can one get than this!

 

This short video tells us how it is within our choice either to celebrate big festivals, putting ourselves in the centre or putting others, especially the most deserving, in the centre. Hope this Festival of Lights helps us bring more light to the lives of people living in darkness. On this Festival, it is coincidental or providential that we have a Gospel passage where we see Jesus bringing a ray of hope to a person engulfed in the darkness of social segregation. Jesus invites himself to the house of Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector Luke 19: 1-10. It is no surprise that the Gospel of Luke, known as the ‘Gospel of Mercy’ is the only source where this lovely event is recorded. 

 

Time and again human history keeps telling us that God and Christ have been and, can be, found in the most unexpected places. Today’s Gospel gives us one more proof of this. Zacchaeus discovers Jesus on the branches of a tree. It is, rather, Jesus who discovers Zacchaeus. 

 

Here is how I visualise this ‘miracle’. Jesus was walking along the streets of Jericho. His fame had spread far and wide and so he was surrounded by a crowd. There were many reasons why the crowd followed Jesus. Curiosity… Hope… Jealousy. Most of the poor people who followed Jesus, were hopeful that they would be saved by Jesus – not only as individuals, but also as a nation. Those who came to Jesus, seeking a miracle, had to invent ways to tackle the crowd. The friends of the paralytic sent him down from the roof (Luke 5: 17-26). The woman with the flow of blood had to approach Jesus stealthily from behind (Luke 8: 43-38). Here is another method chosen by Zacchaeus. He climbed up the tree. A miracle brought him down. 

 

Before we go into the miracle part of it, we need to know who this Zacchaeus is. He was a rich person. He was a tax collector. He was short. I see a connection among these three… Being rich and being a tax collector were intrinsically connected. Being a tax collector and being short were also connected. Really? Here is my theory.

Zacchaeus was born in the family of tax collectors. Hence, from his birth, he had been receiving only hatred and curses from the people around him. A child that grows up in hate-filled circumstances never really grows up – even physically! This was the case with Zacchaeus. Why was he surrounded by hatred? The Jews hated the Romans. But they hated another group MORE - the group of Jews – the tax collectors – who were the traitors. They were the sycophants of the Romans. They were simply, THE SINNERS! This label which was stuck on Zacchaeus did not allow him to grow up.

 

Zacchaeus was curious to see Jesus. If Jesus could have come to the street where Zacchaeus lived, he would have happily stayed at home, gone up to the terrace and seen Jesus and the crowd from the top angle. The top angle would have given Zacchaeus a powerful position. Zacchaeus felt that Jesus would not come to where he lived, since Jesus preferred the poorer section of the city. So, he ventured to meet Him. He feared the ridicule and scorn of the crowd around Jesus and, hence, he invented a new way to encounter Jesus. He climbed up the tree. 

 

Let us come back to the miracle part… Jesus was walking along a road in Jericho. He saw Zacchaeus sitting on a tree. That was strange! A young person sitting on a tree was acceptable. Why was a middle aged person sitting there? Was he mentally disturbed? He did not seem to be so. Then why? So, Jesus turned around to those who were following him and asked them: “Who is that man?” Those around Jesus looked at the person he was pointing at. “Oh, he is a thief, a traitor a sinner…” – the ever-available-ready-made list of labels and accusations came out. Jesus, as was his wont, swept aside all those irrelevant trash and insisted on knowing his name. After squeezing their collective memory for sometime, they begrudgingly revealed the name: Zacchaeus. Jesus registered the name: ZACCHAEUS! (meaning, ‘pure’). Jesus went to the tree and called out: “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” This was the first part of the miracle!

Some one called Zacchaeus by name… by his REAL, ORIGINAL name. It was as if Zacchaeus was born again and he was ‘re-baptised’. A person, who came from his own tribe which had refused to acknowledge his name and preferred to call him only by labels, called him by his sweet name.

 

Zacchaeus was called by name and a miracle happened. The miracle of complete transformation. The Bible and our Christian tradition as well as many other religious traditions talk of persons getting completely transformed – making a complete turn-around. Another popular term for this ‘turn-around’ is ‘conversion’. (Please don’t waste your time and energy on ‘conversions’ that are being talked about by the Indian politicians.) This is a much deeper and more meaningful term. We do talk about our own conversions… our New Year resolutions or the resolutions we take after a retreat.

 

The conversion, the transformation of Zacchaeus is something to reflect on. He does not proclaim very vague, general platitudes like: “Oh, Lord, I shall be good. I shall not harm others. I shall give alms.” His statements are more powerful, binding commitments. Zacchaeus says: "Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount." Half my possessions to the poor… pay back four times, those I have cheated.

Zacchaeus speaks in the ‘present, here-and-now’ language. He is not speaking in futuristic terms – ‘I shall give…’. He is not speaking like a politician, for whom there is always the escape route called ‘tomorrow’. If I come to power, I shall do this, and that and the other. If these words remind you of some presidential candidates, I am not to blame!

 

The Gospel says that “Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord” during the dinner. He did not whisper this to Jesus. This was a proclamation made from the rooftop, almost. When Zacchaeus stood up to speak, he was SHORT, still. But when he finished saying those lines, he really STOOD TALL. When Zacchaeus climbed the tree, he was a crooked tax collector, carrying a load of labels with him. But, he was brought down from the tree by Jesus as a human being first and, perhaps later, as a saint. This great transformation took place since Jesus CALLED HIM BY NAME thus making him discover his original beauty. 

Fr. James Gilhooley begins his homily on Zacchaeus, with these words: “‘A thing of beauty,’ wrote John Keats in Endymion in 1818, ‘is a joy forever.’ Someone has written that as Christians we should love beauty. He went on to say that where beauty is apparent, we should enjoy it. Where beauty is hidden, we should unveil it. Where beauty is defaced, we should restore it. Where there is no beauty at all, we should create it.”

 

The Gospel gives us a proof of Jesus restoring Zacchaeus to his original beauty. All of us are called to be co-creators of beauty in this world.

 

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Going to the temple to pray? to brag?

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time



We begin this Sunday’s reflections with an interesting story that talks of narcissistic, self-worship: Girolamo Savonarola was one of the great preachers of the fifteenth century. He preached in the great cathedral of Florence, Italy, which contained a magnificent marble statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. When Savonarola started preaching at this great cathedral, he noticed one day an elderly woman praying before this statue of Mary. He then began to notice that it was her habit to come every day and pray before the statue. Savonarola remarked one day to an elderly priest who had been serving in the cathedral for many years, "Look how devoted and earnest this woman is. Every day she comes and offers prayers to the blessed Mother of Jesus. What a marvelous act of Faith!" But the elderly priest replied, "Do not be deceived by what you see. Many years ago, when the sculptor needed a model to pose for this statue of the blessed Mother, he hired a beautiful young woman to sit for him. This devout worshiper you see here every day, was that young woman. She is worshipping who she used to be." (Rev.Jones)


 In a Church, in the presence of God, Mother Mary and the Saints, is it possible to worship oneself? It is possible, says Jesus in today’s Gospel – in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18: 9-14). In the 18th chapter, Luke presents two parables together - the Unjust Judge and the Widow, which we read last Sunday, and the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.


 The opening words of this parable, namely, “Two men went up into the temple to pray…” give an impression that Jesus is teaching on prayer. But, Luke’s introduction to this parable gives us a clue as to the intention of Jesus:  Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others. (Lk. 18:9) Luke uses a similar introduction to the parable of the Unjust Judge and the Widow: And he told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. (Lk. 18:1)


When we take both these parables together, what grabs our attention first is the ‘locus’ (the place of action) Jesus uses for both these parables. We expect a parable on prayer to be situated in a place of worship. But, Jesus narrated this parable without mentioning a temple. He spoke of the widow who kept pursuing the judge wherever he went – the road, the court, the judge’s house, the market place… everywhere. While running from pillar to post, the widow must have raised her heart to God in prayer in all these places. Although Jesus intended to use this parable to teach about perseverance in prayer, we can easily see that Jesus was also teaching an indirect lesson that no place is ‘unfit’ for prayer. 


The most fitting place for prayer, as most of us would agree, is the temple. But, Jesus uses the temple, not to teach about prayer, but to teach about pride and/or humility. Jesus used the temple only as a backdrop, while he was concentrating on what was going on in the heart and mind of his two characters – the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Jesus is telling us indirectly that even in the holiest of places, we can end up worshipping ourselves instead of worshipping God.


When Jesus began the parable with the words: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector”, his listeners would have already drawn their conclusions… namely, the Pharisee would go home with God’s approval for his upright ways, while the tax collector would receive God’s condemnation for his devious ways. These thoughts of the people came crashing down when Jesus dropped a bomb at the end of the parable: “I tell you, this man (the tax collector) went down to his house justified rather than the other (the Pharisee); for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Lk. 18:14)


 Humility, one of the cardinal Christian virtues, is called the foundation of all the other virtues by Saint Augustine: “Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues. Hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.”


C.S.Lewis, the famous British lay theologian, in his book Mere Christianity wrote an article on pride with the title: The Great Sin. Here are some relevant excerpts:


There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which everyone loathes when he sees it in someone else…There is no fault that makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. And the more we have it ourselves, the more we dislike it in others.

 

The vice I am talking of is Pride or Self-Conceit: and the virtue opposite to it, in Christian morals, is called Humility… According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.


Pride is essentially competitive – is competitive by its very nature – while the other vices are competitive only, so to speak, by accident. Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man.  We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not.  They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better looking than others. If every one else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud, the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.  


I guess C.S.Lewis was thinking of the Pharisee in the temple while writing these words, especially the latter half. The Pharisee was trying to impress God, not by stating what he was, but what he was in comparison with others! 


 The cure for this sickness is the great virtue called Humility! Here is an interesting quote by an anonymous person: “Humility is a paradox. The moment you think you've finally found it, you've lost it. There has yet to be written a book titled, ‘Humility and How I Achieved It.’” The second line of this quote about the book on humility made me laugh. With so many ‘Do-It-Yourself’ and ‘Made Simple’ manuals available in the market, I was wondering when we would see a manual on ‘Humility - Made Simple’. Humility seems like a simple virtue, but, in reality, it is much more complicated. It is so simple that one can take it for granted and thus lose it.


 Before we close today’s reflections, a word about this Sunday – the Mission Sunday. The Catholic Church celebrates the Mission Sunday on the penultimate Sunday of October. Combining Mission Sunday with the gospel lesson on humility, gives us an occasion to re-invent Mission Sunday in today’s world. The Catholic Church has been celebrating the Mission Sunday with a subtle tinge of pride about the way we have sent missionaries far and wide into the world and also have prayed for more young persons to take up mission work in the future. 


Today it would make more sense if we celebrate the Mission Sunday by sending ‘missionaries’ to the peripheries of human society – as often recommended by Pope Francis. We need to celebrate the ‘Missionary Church’ more as a ‘Field Hospital’ – the famous phrase of Pope Francis!


 

Pope Francis in his book ‘The Name of God is Mercy’ talks of the present day mission of the Catholic Church: “The Church does not exist to condemn people, but to bring about an encounter with the visceral love of God’s mercy… I often say that in order for this to happen, it is necessary to go out: to go out from the churches and the parishes, to go outside and look for people where they live, where they suffer, and where they hope. I like to use the image of a field hospital to describe this ‘Church that goes forth’. It exists where there is combat. It is not a solid structure with all the equipment where people go to receive treatment for both small and large infirmities. It is a mobile structure that offers first aid and immediate care, so that its soldiers do not die.


“It is a place for urgent care, not a place to see a specialist. I hope that the Jubilee [The Holy Year of Mercy] will serve to reveal the Church’s deeply maternal and merciful side, a Church that goes forth toward those who are ‘wounded’, who are in need of an attentive ear, understanding, forgiveness and love.”


 Let us celebrate the Mission Sunday with this tenderness, mercy and humility! 


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