Baptism of Jesus is a significant event between his private (30 years of family) life and his public ministry. On the one hand, Jesus’ baptism concludes the Christmas season, but also commences his 3 years ministerial duties as the teaching prophet, the sanctifying priest, and the king of kings.
At the baptism of Jesus two facts were revealed. First, there was need to publicly endorse the very fact that Jesus’ incarnation did not distort his divine personality. This confirmation was aimed at eliminating possible doubts or suspicions that the human birth and tutelage by the mother, Mary, affected the divinity of Jesus.
When John the Baptist conceded to Jesus’ request for baptism at the river Jordan, the three persons of the Trinity were actively present. In the full glare of the crowds, and as Jesus stepped out of the water, the Holy Spirit descended upon him as a dove, while the voice of the Father thundered: “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3: 13-17). In essence, the words of the Father and the witnessing of the Holy Spirit confirmed the 100% divine nature of Jesus, even in a 100% human nature. Thus, the Church truly teaches that Jesus is one person with two natures.
By extension, the endorsement of the Father and the Holy Spirit also accounts for the appreciation of the excellent motherhood of Mary. From the moment of conception, through birth, and the raising of Jesus, Mary’s motherhood was judged a perfect service in collaboration of the Trinity. The words of the Father can be read as a thankful appreciation to Mary and Joseph for the awesome job of raising a flawless Son of God for 30 years.
If God trusted the competence of Mary for 30 years; if Jesus humbled and obeyed Mary’s instructions for 30 years; and if Mary intimately knew Jesus for 30 years; why should any sane Christian presume he/she could be a true follower of Jesus, without appreciating the unique role of the mother? From this analysis, there is no doubt that Mary was the most privileged disciple of her son. Needless to conclude that Mary not only heard the Word of God and kept it (Luke 11:28), but was also present at the Pentecost event (Acts 1: 12-14).
Second, the baptism of Jesus provided the opportunity not only to affirm the identity of Jesus but more so to define his mission. In fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, Jesus is that non-violent savior that would rather sacrifice his life for the sake of his flock, than break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick, until he establishes justice on the earth (Is 42: 1-4, 6-7).
But why was Jesus baptized? Baptism was not necessary for Jesus, a reason John the Baptist tried to decline from baptizing him. The answer is rather found in the statement of Peter: After the baptism of Jesus, he went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him (Acts 10: 34-38). As a prophetic teacher, Jesus underscored the message of the kingdom by his examples. The easiest manner to inculcate the necessity of baptism to his followers (compared to children) was for Jesus to accept baptism, thereby confirming his mission identity as the Way, the Truth and the Life. However, because John’s baptism was for repentance only, toward the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus commanded the Trinitarian formula as a criterion for valid Christian baptism instituted for eternal salvation. Therefore, all Christians should strive to appreciate the fact that both the 30 years of Jesus’ private life (under Mary) and his 3 years of public ministry were inseparably committed for our salvation.
God bless you. Fr. Levi
"Gentiles" is a generic biblical term for non-Jews or other nations. Like the Jews, the sign of the expected messiah was extended to them because Jesus was born as king of the whole world. Two groups of complementary identities represented the Israelite-Jews (shepherds) and the Gentiles (magi) in the remarkable visitations to the infant savior. As noticed, the fuzzy understanding of the shepherds concerning the coming of the messiah reflects the faint interpretation of his star (sign) by the astrologers from the East.
The story of the magi fits into the single event of Christmas. The magi visitation today, complements the earlier visitation of the shepherds. Perhaps, the shepherds in their lowliness and simplicity overcame the busyness of the Jewish society. But to prove that the obstacle was the man-made busyness, and not the comfortable status of the people who gathered in Bethlehem, the second visitors of the baby Jesus were drawn from the elite class. The wealthy learned magi validate the scriptural point that Christ came to reconcile ALL things back to the Father. So, even as a baby in the manger, Jesus already became the rallying point and the enricher of ALL.
Epiphany marks the revelation of Christ to the non-Jewish world. Although the manifestation came later, still the faith deposit it impacted on these foreigners is quite the same. Geographic distance and time are no determinants in the faith journey.
Epiphany can as well be the actual Christmas for non-Jews. God chose to reveal His son first to the Jews before the Gentiles. Only God knows the reason for that plan. Nonetheless, to date, the Orthodox Catholics of Eastern rite celebrate Epiphany as their own Christmas.
Whether celebrated according to the Western rite or the Eastern rite, Christmas is for respective wholeness. From the status upgrade of unworthy ancestors of men and women, through the popularity of the shepherds, then to the conversion of the wealthy pagan magi, the birth of Christ has proven its illuminative power over the darkness of doubt and ignorance. None of these actors in the drama of faith was complete. Rather, the fullness of revelation of God in Christ shed His Light upon them and made them whole. At each visitation of the baby-Christ, inadequacies were healed. The insignificant shepherds became the first and authentic witnesses of the savior’s birth, while the pagan magi returned home as believers. Christmas completes whatever each person lacks. To the humble hearted, Christ’s birth brought fulfillment. But to the egoists (like King Herod), who had no room for Christ, the message of His birth became a threat that exacerbated into infanticide (killing of the under two year olds). “He came to his own, but his own did not accept him. But to those who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become the children of God (John 1:11-12). Let us strive to belong to the group that long to receive Christ daily, by witnessing to his Light on earth.
God bless you. Fr. Levi
The family of believers is the first Church, and the nucleus of Christian learning. The first religious lessons begin in the family through words and examples. Children easily copy what they see rather than what they hear. A family that has time for God would produce children that know and respect God, prior to encountering contrary teachings.
Church in its proper perspective is the gathering of two or three in the name of Christ (Matt. 18: 20). It is the family of believers that forms the basic Church. Hence, the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, logically idealizes the first church. Every other form of Christian community is an extension of such family faith. In other words, the family is the parameter for measuring the faith-strength of Christianity in every local Church. It is improper therefore to view the Church as gathering of individuals. That will reduce the church to a crowd.
This family based importance of the Church has come under enormous threat at our age and time. The simple reason derives from the fact that family and church are interrelated. Whatever affects one affects the other. Said differently, the failure of the family adversely affects the growth of the Church. Most recently, secular and political policies are fast in eroding family bonds, with the Church as primary target. Accordingly, the loud individualism amidst the noisy world has been detrimental to the healthy status of family life.
Learning from the Holy family therefore, can be instrumental to the disruption of such dangerous plot. The Holy family comprises Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Even though its hierarchical order connotes a reversal of the conventional family template of father, mother, and child, exploring the thirty years of Jesus’ private life, before his public ministry, can be revealing. In accordance with CCC #533 two major secrets of the Holy Family bond, are contemplative silence and dignity of work. This approach can further be achieved through juxtaposition with the triple roles of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and by identifying their distinctions, without losing sight of their connectivity.
In contrast to the modern passion for voice, Mary and Joseph maintained equilibrium in their home through contemplative silence. They discovered the nobility of silence and applied it as a rule of life. Silence does not mean indifference. Rather, it means the discipline of talking when necessary and about relevant issues. Mary spoke few but effective words in the scripture. In like manner, the scripture depicts Joseph as a great listener that loved putting into action the will of God. In fact, there is no single word in the scripture attributed to Joseph. The act of pondering the mystery of salvation protected Mary and Joseph from verbal profanity and abuses. Unfortunately, in today world, silence is detestably viewed as mark of nonexistence. Loquacity has assumed a beacon of freedom of expression with its concomitant abuses. Nevertheless, inventions and lifesaving breakthroughs are products of silence.
For Mary and Joseph, silence does not mean inactivity. On the contrary, silence increases concentration, which improves productivity of labor. These parents of Jesus as tradition testifies valued the dignity of human labor. Both found fulfillment in their respective house keeping stewardship and carpentry skill, but inculcated same to Jesus.
Jesus, though God, subjected himself to the parenting skills of Mary and Joseph. He respectfully learned from them, even though he was to be their teacher. Honoring of parents is the only commandment with an earthly reward because of the importance of parental roles. However, great parents are also open to learn from their children, as Mary and Joseph did, when Jesus stayed back in the Temple, doing his heavenly Father’s work.
Parenting involves a balance of fatherly and motherly roles. Mary gave birth to the baby Jesus, but Joseph was their custodian, who implemented the flight to Egypt. The secret of successful parenting lays on the ability to give the partner excuses. Trust is key, here. Mary and Joseph had individual messages from God, but none doubted the other. The overall secret of Mary and Joseph can be identified in the unconditional love of God they shared. Therefore, whenever a family of believers anchors its home on love of God, mutual respect and appreciation become the delicious fruits of silence and hard work.
Wishing you a favorable New Year. Fr. Levi
“Christmas comes to bless the earth with its wondrous heavenly gift.” Many however, miss its heavenly blessings. It took 30 solid days of Advent preparations for the messiah’s birth. In ancient times, it even took centuries of hope between Isaiah’s prophecy of a virgin’s birth, whose name is Emmanuel, and its fulfillment on the first Christmas. Still, the messiah was unwelcomed. Rather, the infant-savior had the lowliest of birth without merriment. Even though Caesar Augustus decreed a census holiday, people gathered, but got busier with their own thing. Consequently, there was no-space for the savior of the world. Indeed, each person had excuses for the unwelcoming attitude. Nonetheless, how silly could excuses be when seen from a vantage point?
A drunk man in a house party suddenly remembered that drunk driving is a severe punishable offense. Unannounced, he left the party and boarded a city transit bus. An hour later, those in the party got curious about his absence. So, his best friend phoned to check on him: “Sam, where are you, your car is parked outside?” Intoxicated Sam hilariously replied: “Yeah, I am in a bus headed home. I left the car because I can’t drive drunk. Who wants a ticket from those mean looking cops? Shocked, the friend asked: “Which other home are you going to, we are all in your house. You are hosting the house party.” As silly as the excuse of the drunk Sam, so was humanity’s excuses at the first Christmas, and perhaps, thereafter.
Christmas reenacts the birth of that God, who took our nature (incarnation) and stayed with us (Immanu-El). His prenatal names: Emmanuel (God among us) and Jesus (savior) communicate the oneness of his person and mission.
Christ came that All may have life in abundance (John 10:10). Even though, the optimal goal of Christmas is humanity’s interest: “He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him” (John 1: 1-13). What boldness of ingratitude!!!
In truth, his virgin birth instituted wholeness across borders. It interrupted the Jewish male world, and included Tamar (adulterer), Rahab (prostitute), Ruth (a Moabite – a pagan territory), Bathsheba (adulterer) and Mary (a suspect of infidelity), in the list of Jesus’ ancestors (Matt 1: 1-25).
Next, the shepherds (stereotyped as non-persons) were the first to receive the message of Christmas. Most probably, they were excluded from the census. In spite of their invalidity as witnesses in court, these marginalized shepherds became the first authentic announcers of the good news of Christmas. They were also the first choristers of the divinely taught Gloria.
Even though the shepherds were the first human visitors to the infant Jesus (Lk. 2: 1-14), they were second to the hospitality of the animals. All rooms were sold off, except the manger in the stable. Again, humanity fumbled in her silly excuses of busyness.
Busyness is a common excuse that obstructs. On the first Christmas night families and friends were noisily busy (drunk in merriment) that they missed the greatest joyous event in human history. Could it be that the shepherds were able to hear the melodious song of the heavenly host because they were quiet and less busy? Despite being drawn together in Bethlehem, people still allowed silly excuses to prevent them from witnessing to the unique event of the first Christmas. The heavenly host, nature’s moon and stars and the animal kingdom bowed in adoration at the birth of the savior, but humanity was too busy to welcome its highest Gift. Therefore, learning from the folly of humanity’s busyness is a welcomed development, because “… to those that accepted him, he (Christ) gave the offer of adoption as children of God.”
Merry Christmas. Fr. Levi
Why a sign?
A sign points to a reality that shares meaningful relationship with it. It draws attention not to itself, but to something else. Signs inspire hope toward what is signified. Signs occur either as natural (one to one identification, like smoke and fire) or artificial (logical connection, like road signs). Overall, signs evoke the imminence of the expected reality. Therefore, sign and hope are interrelated in the same way logical contradiction evokes doubt.
However, beyond these two types of sign is the supernatural sign. Supernatural sign is not governed by natural laws. As such, it takes both faith and reason to understand it. In supernatural sign, the reality and what points to it are inseparable. Essentially, the sign is the reality itself. This distinction enables us to better understand why God prompted Ahaz to ask for a sign concerning the long awaited messiah.The circumstances of King Ahaz of Judah, (Southern Israel; 2 tribes) needs retelling. War is looming. The enemy allies have encamped against a helpless Judah. Ahaz, in obedience to the prophetic word of God from Isaiah, relied on the protection of God. He refused to join forces with the Northern Israel (10 tribes) and her allies, against the Assyrians. As a result, the Northern forces declared war against Judah in order to destroy Ahaz, and install a puppet king in their favor.
Should Ahaz fight in defense of Judah? Strangely, God told Ahaz, through Isaiah, not to do anything but that He, God, is the protection of Judah. Sensing that Ahaz was not convinced, God told him to ask for a sign. Fortunately, the fear of God in Ahaz surpassed his doubts, and he declined the (sign) offer.
God was highly pleased with the decision of Ahaz because faith is deeper than reason. As a result, God did not only protect Judah, He as well promised a supernatural sign (“a virgin will bear a son”) for a supernatural reality (messiah – God-Man) from the minority tribe of Judah. When viewed with a natural lens, this supernatural sign appears contradictory.
Whatever thwarts the logic of natural laws is hastily termed contradictory, as though such laws must regulate every happenstance. The ordained coming of the messiah has a sign that flaws the laws of nature and logic. This particular sign contains what it signifies: “A virgin will bear a son and his name shall be called Emmanuel – God with us.” Does that mean, God, through Isaiah, foretold “contradiction” as a sign of the messiah?
A critical look shows no contradiction. The coming of the messiah is not governed by the logical principles of natural laws. Natural laws only govern natural occurrences, but not supernatural events. The coming of the messiah is a supernatural event that surpasses the laws of natural logic. If a genuine sign must contain the reality it signifies, then a pregnant virgin is the best sign for a God-Man's conception and birth. Here, the natural interfaced with the supernatural. It is therefore most appropriate that the holy marriage between divinity and humanity gave birth to the messiah. Mary and Joseph struggled with this seeming contradiction, until they received clarifications from God.
In that unique moment of incarnation, the chosen Virgin Mary collaborated with the Trinity: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God (Lk 1: 35). She is the human ambassador, whose irrevocable YES enabled the first Christmas. God permitted the collaboration of one uncontaminated human person in order to save the world because “God who created you without you, will not save you without you,” (Augustine). Mary qualified as that purest human, whose body became the safe sanctuary for the divine messiah.
To prove that life is larger than logic, God gave Ahaz a special sign to reassure doubtful minds of His sustained plan of salvation. This sign of “a virgin birth” is uniquely extraordinary because it contains what it signifies – the divine-human reality, which is the cause of our joy.
God bless you. Fr. Levi
Most regrettable acts have resulted from impatience. Little wonder the Latin wisdom says: In dubio non agis – Do not act, while in doubt.
Consequently, the Gaudate Sunday or the Third Sunday of Advent speaks the language of patience. Gaudate or joyful symbolized with the rose candle on the Advent wreath encourages Christians to hold on a little bit more. Even though it can be difficult to wait so long, many have missed the excitement because they gave up, not knowing that the end was too near. Only the patient ones are able to witness the joyous reward of reaching the end.
The pastoral letter of James (5: 7-10) admonishes Christians to learn the patience of the farmer as he waits on the late rains for fruitful harvest. Bishop James teaches that the coming of the Messiah requires not just the farmer’s patience, but also the patience of prophets: “Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers and sisters, the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” The most fitting prophet to learn from is John the Baptist (JB). “JB was more than a prophet,” still, he experienced hardship while waiting for the messiah. He was “the chosen messenger of the messiah,” and a 2nd cousin of Jesus, still, he languished in prison, but later paid the ultimate price of his prophetic ministry.
We can imagine the thoughts of JB in the captivity of Herod (IV) that caused him to send messengers to Jesus, in order to clear his doubt about the messiah: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” If JB was at some point confused concerning the inaction of the messiah to save him from prison, he might have struggled to understand the kind of messiah he prepared the way for his coming.
Like JB, our narrow expectation of the messiah is the problem. Unfortunately, the messiah is neither a warlord, nor the Spiderman. Rather, Isaiah (35: 1-61, 10) describes the character of the expected messiah: “He comes with vindication, with divine recompense . . . Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.” When confronted with the skeptical question from JB, Jesus authenticated his messiah-ship by affirming the prophecy of Isaiah: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”Interestingly, despite his doubts, JB took no offense at Jesus, and was blessed. The patience of JB in suffering for the expected messiah that “strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips slay the wicked” (Isaiah 11: 1-10), contributed in earning him, the “Greatest Of All Time” title, from the messiah: “Amen I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
Whoever, therefore, takes the advise of Bishop James seriously, and learns from the patience of prophet John the Baptist puts himself or herself in the best mood of meriting the praise and blessing of the messiah, when he comes. With patience, our hope to see the messiah will be awesomely rewarded. The messiah will soon be with us. A little bit of patience is needed to unleash the desired joyous moment. Hurrah!!! Brothers and sisters, the waiting will soon be over.
God bless you. Fr Levi
This second phase of Advent journey reassures hope and justice for the victimized. In ages past, God through the prophets has promised a Messiah for the rescue mission plan of the oppressed. This phase II plan unveils the strategic approaches of the expected Messiah, which include disabling the wicked and rehabilitating the victims of their wickedness. Although people have different perceptions about the Messiah, the Messiah in his unique approach is coming to bring hope amidst hopelessness.
To the impatient modern mind (such as the Pharisees and the Sadducees), the way of the Messiah delays and is unreasonable. The unnatural lowly birth of such a nonviolent preacher and his shameful passion and death contradict the reasonability of modern logic concerning an eradicator of evil. For these skeptics, why still hope on a “weak” Messiah? Our expected Messiah is not weak. Rather, his approach is different from the societal mindset. His gradual and nonviolent strategies are designed for our own good. The faithful understand the news of expectation of the Messiah and wait in eagerness and excitement.
Five youngsters got lost in a strange Island when the storm overturned their boat. They lay exhausted on the shore for a couple hours. Then they worried on what next to do. The believer-girl proposed praying to God since they lost everything including their communication gadgets. She was vehemently opposed and ridiculed. Luckily, one of the skeptics found an old rusted lighter with little fluid. Everyone sprung into gathering coconut palms for constructing a shelter. After construction, they lit dried sticks and palms to keep warm. Satisfied with their efforts, they rushed into the water to freshen up. As they were in the water, the wind increased the fire and it burned down their shelter, including the lighter. What a huge loss!!! The believer-girl tried to comfort by encouraging them not to give up on God. Unanimously, the other four cursed her and her God, questioning where that God was when they lost everything in the storm. And worse still, the destruction of their shelter – the only hope of immediate survival. Amidst such pain and devastation, the four skeptics were despaired and waited for death. But the believer-girl stayed by herself and prayed. Even though she couldn’t fathom when and how the rescue mission would happen, she eagerly waited.
Suddenly a hovering rescue helicopter disrupted their silence. “The savior is here,” they shouted. The youngsters were overwhelmed with joy, while being lifted away from their hopelessness. Curiously, one of them asked the pilot how he located them. “I saw your smoke signal and found you,” he replied. But they said we didn’t send any signal. The fire burned our improvised shelter and we lost all hope. Immediately, the believer-girl shouted, “all thanks to God for answered prayers.” God allowed the destruction of what we thought could have protected us for a night to become a reliable sign for our final safety. The rest were humbled.
As the scripture messages announce the modality of the expected Messiah, it is received with negative and positive attitudes. While indifference and skepticism dismiss the truth of the coming Messiah, believers await him with excitement and joy. Unlike the modern logic mindset, believers express hope in the midst of hopelessness. The believer-girl, even though a suppressed voiced, was finally vindicated. We can learn from her to resist the pressure of the secular society and believe that God’s silence is neither weakness, nor abandonment. Rather, the Messiah’s gradual and nonviolent strategies are designed for our best interests.
God bless you. Fr. Levi
Happy New Year, everyone. Advent begins the new year of the Church. Advent comes from two Latin words: ad (towards) and venio (coming; to come). Literally, advenit translates “he is coming towards.” So, Advent implies two important questions: Who is coming and for what reason? The Messiah is coming towards his oppressed people in order to liberate them, especially from sin and death. Advent is the liturgical season that reenacts that period of increased longing for the first coming of the Messiah. By extension, there is still need for God’s intervention in our distorted world in order to restore our hope for life.
The significance of Advent positions it between the first coming and the second (Last) coming. Liturgically, Advent offers an ongoing consciousness of the second coming of Christ (anticipated as Christ the King), but with emphasis on the memorial of the first visitation (Christmas). The liturgical color of purple speaks the language of hope in the four weeks of Advent, represented by the four big candles of the Advent wreath. From one lighted in the first week, the number of lit candles increases proportionately in subsequent weeks. Gloria at Mass is dropped during Advent such that it will be sung with renewed spirit on Christmas Eve (marking the first time the angels sang it to the shepherds).
Advent language of hope is emphatically present in the readings of today. The reality of such yearning period in the history of our faith can best be experienced through imagination. Imagine what it feels like being under the colonial Romans, with severe restrictions on political, religious and economic freedom, but daily anticipate the day of the promised Messiah. And behold God speaks through Isaiah that the day of the Lord (the Savior) is nearer than ever (Is 2:1-5). The great excitement must have cut across the aging, and the young, including the children, resulting in an overwhelming eagerness to experience freedom. With similar feeling should we desire the presence of the infant savior among us because our confused secularized world lacks Christ. The evils, injustices, and calamities we daily experience are clear indicators of our helplessness.
Paul calls for an increased consciousness of the Savior, whose coming is sooner: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh” (Rom 13:11-14). Here, Paul sets basis for the Lord’s coming, which echoes the same readiness implied during Advent and for the second coming. Similarly, Jesus forewarns against the distractions from the lust of the flesh that kept people busy in the time of Noah and cost them their lives in the flood (Mt 24: 37-44). Unfortunately, the orgies of sin are still holding many people in captivity, and obstructing them to realize the need to prepare for the Lord’s coming. But the truth is, no amount of pleasure can satisfy, while still in captivity. The lasting satisfaction needed is freedom from captivity, which can only be granted by Christ. Advent is that opportunity to intensify the preparation for Jesus, the Messiah (so as not to be found wanting). Welcome onboard, Advent Airline, for a four weeks cruise.
God bless you. Fr Levi
Christ the King is the liturgical anticipation of the second coming of Christ as a king, destined to happen on the Last Day, when all things will be reconciled to the Father, through the justice of personal accountability. That very Day, Christ will judge the earth.
Is Christ a king? Christ is the ideal king, and therefore the king of kings. He is the unique king. When interrogated by Pilate during his passion, Jesus replied: “my kingdom is not of this world,” (John 18:36). Pilate, hearing that said: “Then you are a king?” Jesus replied: "For this reason I was born and have come into the world, to testify to the truth" (Lk. 23:3). Christ’s definitive responses eliminated any doubt concerning his kingship.
Was Christ kingly while on earth? Yes and No! No, because Christ’s kingship transcends the standard of earthly kings. Earthly standard of royalty emphasizes supremacy and might. In other words, the people labor and sacrifice for their kings. It is so common that it has been the norm. Royalty therefore is the exclusive right of kings (queens). However, Christ warned against such supremacist’s ethics: “The kings of the earth lord it over their subjects, you shall not be like them" (Lk. 22:25-26).
Yes, because Christ is a king with a difference. Unlike the earthly kings, who demand worship and services from their subjects, Christ’s kingship renders services to all: “The son of man did not come to be served, but to serve” (Matt. 20:28). Through multiple examples of service, Christ redefined leadership as servant oriented.
What kind of king is he? The “Servant Songs” in Isaiah 42: 1-9 and 49: 1-13 offer us the right lens to see Christ as the servant-king. Based on emphasis, Christ first coming is distinguished from his second coming. As Christ, he functions as a king, a priest and a prophet. Whereas his roles as a prophet and a priest dominated his first coming, his function as a king will dominate his second coming, without diminishing the other two. At this second coming, Christ will perform his role as the just judge. With a crown of love on his head and a scepter of equity in his hand, he will judge the world.
What are the significances of his kingship? It is for the purposes of love that judgment is scheduled at the end of time, but also reserved for God, who has a holistic knowledge of each person. Does God’s enduring patience to wait until the end not question our hasty condemnation of each other, despite our sketchy knowledge of the other? Is Christ the King celebration not an annual landmark reminder that “we act God” each time we judge another person? Nevertheless, Christ’s kingship assures us hope of freedom. This includes: freedom from oppression, misconception, servitude and contempt; freedom from sufferings, pains, and death; but also freedom of the children of God that enables us to become coheirs with Christ in his kingdom.
Christ the King celebration concludes the liturgical calendar of the year, the same way the second coming of Christ on the Last Day will bring creation to a purposeful end. The Church allows her members to experience such annual reminder in readiness for the ultimate end. Despite the certainty of this second coming, the day and time are uncertain to anyone, besides the Father. Therefore, readiness in waiting for Christ’s second coming is required, and as such an awesome deal, for the eternal joy and happiness it heralds. Yes, we can be found worthy, when Christ appears in glory.God bless you. Fr. Levi
With barely one week left before the Catholic liturgical calendar of the year comes to an end, it is not surprising that the readings speak the eschatological (end-time discourse) languages of warning. These biblical warnings, rather than sound scary, are aimed at avoiding silly mistakes. Righting our wrongs while there is time, in readiness for that end, is the goal. In other words, eschatological discourses are cautionary measures. Imagining the end to be as near as possible would necessitate the expected readiness for the second coming of Christ.
The church’s calendar will end next Sunday with the Solemnity of Christ the King. Christ the King is a foretaste celebration of that Last Day. Jesus first came as a savior. His second coming will be as a judge. In his first coming, Jesus through words and deeds showed us the WAY to the Father. This second coming, designed to bring all things to a unifying end, will be guided by the justice of rewarding each person according to his/her deeds. Therefore, the Last Day is for personal accountability. It is a day of reckoning; a day of judgment that separates the wicked from the kindhearted. The Last Day can occur as an individual or a collective end. As a matter of fact, not all who desire union with God would succeed due to procrastination. The time is now in order to avoid regrets.
Regrettably, we often worry endlessly because the focus of concern is missed. We should rather focus our worries on the things within our limit to improve, not on the things reserved for the divine authority of God. Certain worries are beyond us, such as seeking to know when and how the world will come to an end. According to Jesus: “Only the Father knows.” Readiness should be the only useful concern. This entails being prepared always for that unexpected Last Time and Day. What then should be the concern of Christians, if worrying about knowing the exact time is futile? Paul knows better.
Paul invites us to imitate his style of readiness for the Last Day. For Paul, living in view of the Last Day, demands that each day becomes an opportunity to be worthy children of God. The consciousness of the Last Day inculcates in us the wisdom to stay clean with God and to avoid any distractions.
Last Day is that most important day of life. What matters is not how we come into the world, but how we conclude our earthly journey. The winner of the marathon is decided by how the race ends. The Last Day is the finish line of the earthly race, except that the lines are invisible, and without cheerers. Only the inner voice of conscience accompanies each racer. Because of the invisible finish lines, many get lazier, lose focus, and give-up, not knowing they are a few inches away from their respective finish lines. Symptoms of laziness include pride, greed, slander, and self-centeredness.
Paul condemns the tendency of succumbing to laziness (2 Thes 3: 7-12). Laziness is a silent revolt against the gifted potentials of humanity meant for personal and collective improvements. Whoever therefore, chooses to abandon his race, or refuses to work, or doubtfully seeks a proof for the exact time and manner of the Last Day, has already condemned himself (Mal. 3: 19-20). Not even persecution is excusable enough for giving up the struggle. In the midst of oppression and calamity, the safety of the righteous is assured as promised by Jesus: “Not a hair on your head will be destroyed,” because “By your perseverance you will secure your lives” (LK 21:19). To persevere, one has to be ready for the Last Day by staying conscious of compassion and collaboration in good deeds.
God bless you. Fr. Levi
Obviously, there are earthly treasures. Seekers of earthbound treasures, like the Sadducees, patronize them for the gains of worldly pleasures. Although stories of treasure hunt (search) include foreseeable risks, still the daring embark on it because the reward is nothing compared to the risks involved. Compared to earthly treasure, heaven is the ultimate treasure. Heavenly treasure in this regard represents that which optimally satisfies the afterlife experience.
Afterlife is that unmatchable treasure, which is incomparable to anything else. Unlike the hunt for earthly treasure, which is disrupted by death, the earnest desire for heavenly treasure transcends death. Death is incapable of obstructing the search for eternal life. It rather facilitates it. For sincere seekers of heavenly treasure, death can only be a quicker means to their goal, and not an end to it. Such distinction provides grounds for the daring attitude of the seven brothers seen in today’s 1st reading (2 Mac 7:1-2, 9-14), but also the gospel exposition of the narrow-mindedness of the Sadducees (Lk 20: 27-38).
Driven by pleasure-bound philosophy, the Sadducees tried to ridicule Jesus about the possibility of resurrection. Similarly, the tyrannical king enforced death penalty on those who believed in the invaluable afterlife treasure. Fortunately, the propaganda of the Sadducees and the death strategy of the king failed woefully. In both examples, the faith conviction of what awaits the friends of God, after death, stood unbeatable.
Even though the eating of pork feels pleasurable, it was believed to be a violation against God’s law and so was resisted by the seven brothers. Death penalty was not enough threat to alter the strong belief of choosing obedience to God above any other pleasurable thing: “It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by him…” (2 Mac 7: 9-14).
Like the seven faithful brothers, Christians are called to embrace the steadfastness that the grace of God offers, which fosters the desire for the heavenly treasure, even if it meant paying the ultimate prize of death (2Thess 2: 16 – 3:5). Equally, and against the lame argument of the Sadducees, Jesus teaches that resurrection is real because the seekers of the kingdom have no need for afterlife marriage. They are like angels. And since they made the right choice, they can no longer die because they were not afraid to die only once, in order to treasure eternal life. More practically, the Winter season which brings the dying of nature's beauty also assures the joyful hope that Spring (resurrection) will soon be here. Christians have a lot to learn from this natural phenomenon.
Elsewhere Paul affirms that no sacrifice is too much for the sake of Christ and his gospel. This might sound ridiculous, but more imperative in the present age and time when people tend to shun pain and try every means possible to deny its existence or negate its redeeming effect. More than ever, the global socio-political and religious oppressions demand concrete interruption of the inhuman current situation, irrespective of the costly price. Like Paul, may this personal pledge enrich our drive for the heavenly treasure: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is the church" (Colossians 1: 24).
God bless you. Fr. Levi
God loves the sinner and so awaits his return. This statement is true because God sees the distinction between a sinner and his sins. The book of Wisdom 11:22-23 confirms that God “overlooks people’s sins that they may repent.” Said differently, God loves the sinner, but detests his sins. The sinner ceases to be one, at the very moment he decides to separate himself from his routine or occasional sinful acts. In the scene of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:11), Jesus’ words affirm this distinction: “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.” Jesus did not condemn the woman, and would not ever condemn her, if she would take seriously the advice to separate herself from sin. Therefore, anytime the sinner, in freedom, distances himself from sin, his personality bonds with God. The bonding of humanity with God is the origin and purpose of creation. Many desire this bonding, but can only actualize it through the proper use of freedom, and not its abuse. Freedom, as intrinsic gift from God, achieves its purpose when oriented toward the divine-human love-bond.
God endowed humanity with freedom that she might choose to stay on and enjoy the incomparable love relationship, or walk away into self-destruction. Each choice has inseparable consequences. Permit me to use the metaphor of light to further buttress this point. First, imagine God as the solar energy (sun), and each person as the moon. So long as the moon travels through the direction of the sun, it (like a mirror) reflects the light of the sun upon the earth, but gradually loses the light when it travels away from the source of light. As the moon loses its beauty and brightness when it derails from the sun, so does each person lose her essential beauty, when the darkened path of sin is chosen.
In accord with the Greek, harmartia (deviation), sin simply means a conscious walking away from the glowing and glorious presence of God, into the perilous dark zone. Nevertheless, here is the good news: there is always enough room awaiting the return to the source of light. In this regard, if the moon returned to the sun and stayed, its light will ever glow. Similarly, God patiently and eagerly awaits our return to stay – “there is more joy in the presence of the angels of God, over a sinner that repents” (Lk 15:10).
Jesus in the gospel narrative (Lk 19:1-10) exemplified the untold patience and eagerness of God toward a sinner that seeks the face of God. Like Zacchaeus, sin obstructs the vision of a sinner to see God. However, immediately the sinner thirsts for God by making sincere effort to overcome his obstacle (Lazarus climbed a tree against his short stature), he would be surprised at the extent of readiness with which God has desired his return.
Unfortunately, God cannot force a sinner to return home. That would contradict His endowed freedom to humanity. At the same time, God never ceases to propose a return reminder by whispering to our consciences, and by providing appealing signs along the chosen wrong way: “…. little by little [God] warns them (sinners) and reminds them of the sins they are committing that they may abandon their wickedness…” (Wis 12:2). More so, at the very moment someone made a decision to return, God prioritizes the process. Such was the encounter between Zacchaeus and Jesus.Whereas the Pharisees defined Zacchaeus by his dishonest tax practices, Jesus emphasized the distinction between his sins and his person, and so, offered him the opportunity to separate the two. The beauty in Zacchaeus, which Jesus saw and helped to activate, revealed him as a compassionate person, who resolutely abandoned his evil past, and over-compensated those he extorted. The story of Zacchaeus teaches that a sinner today can become a saint tomorrow. To become a saint, we only need to desire God by freeing ourselves from the shackles of sins, in order to be embraced by the awaiting hands of God. Good luck in your decision.
God bless you. Fr. Levi
The “Lord is a God of justice, who knows no favorites.” Also, God is mostly compassionate to the cry of the oppressed, the poor, and the orphan because the prayer of the humble pierces the cloud and does not rest until it obtains its request (Sir 35: 12-14, 16-18). Why then are some prayers not answered within the ambience of God’s justice?
Paul uses his humble experience to explain how the justice of God works. According to him, the justice of God functions within the love of God. It is neither revengeful, nor retributive. Rather, the justice of God allowed Paul to forgive those who denied him support at very crucial moment. Facing those trials, Paul contracts the desertion he suffered from his followers with the unflinching faithfulness of God (2 Tim 4: 6-8, 16-18). Like Paul, the consolation of believers is anchored on the truth that a just reward awaits those who would not despise others for whatsoever reason.
To despise others entails self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is a symptom of pride, which contaminates prayer. It takes pride to defend and cover up one’s flaws or guilt. On the contrast, it takes humility to accept or acknowledge one’s weakness or wrong. Humility melts all obstacles along the path of one’s prayer because it attracts the just compassion of God. Any prayer therefore that lacks humility is a bad prayer. Moreover, a bad or contaminated prayer is offensive to God’s ears.
To pray badly is to be elusive of the ACTS of prayer. Genuine prayer is a deliberate act with a defined purpose addressed to the Supreme authority of all things. It is a dialogic interaction between two unequal persons or between a petitioner and the (sole) petitioned. The ACTS of prayer includes the four aspects of genuine petition: Adoration (acknowledging the supremacy of God in contrast to our inferiority), Contrition (acknowledging our faults and imperfections), Thanksgiving (appreciating the benevolence of God), and Supplication (affirming our nothingness without God). In other words, prayer is itself an obvious expression of humility, helplessness, and dependency upon God.
The Pharisee in the gospel narrative (Luke 18: 9-14) prayed wrongly because the ACTS of prayer did not guide his words to God. Worse still, he despised the tax collector in the process of bragging. First, his words were empty of prayer (only praised himself). Second, they were offensive (arrogance). His boasting and arrogance contaminated his address to God because they lacked the basis of love of God and love of neighbor. However, the prayer of the tax collector found favor in the sight of God because he prayed in accord with the ACTS of prayer.
Like the tax collector, may our prayers be structured with the ACTS of prayer, as we PUSH (Pray Until Something Happens) our destiny forward.
God bless you. Fr. Levi
Within the dynamics of unmerited favor from God exists the justice of God. In confirmation, the weekday Common Preface II addresses God in these words: In love you created man (humanity), in justice you condemned him, but in mercy, you redeemed him. In God, love, justice and mercy are integral attributes that work in harmony, without any conflict. Two salient points are noticed:
1) God expresses His love as unmerited favor towards humanity.
2) Justice has a significant influence on God’s response to prayers.
Any contradictions? Absolutely no!!! Rather than contradict, God’s justice perfects God’s love. Both work in excellent harmony. The same God, who occasionally surprises us with choicest blessings, also desires that we trust His benevolence and request for our needs, until they are granted.
The emphasis on today’s readings concerns the need for persistence in prayer. Persistence not only demonstrates eloquent faith in God, it as well appeals to the authority of God’s justice. This point agrees with the main teaching of Jesus in the story of the poor widow and the unjust judge. Harping on the importance of persistence in prayer, Jesus contrasts the unjust judge with the God of justice. He challenges us to reason about the fact that, if the persistent cry of the widow caused the judge to grant her request, would not the justice of God guarantee a premium response to whosoever calls upon Him, unceasingly? Nevertheless, whereas the unjust judge granted the request of the widow in escape for self-satisfaction, God answers persistent prayer because it is His nature to harmonize justice with love.
Prayerful persistence strengthens faith in God and deepens the love bond. It takes a great amount of humility and dependence on God to achieve. A strengthened faith is like a quality faith, which can move mountains. In addition to faith commitment, prayerful persistence allows the petitioner to exercise her freedom of worship.
As a reward, persistence separates us from the long general queue, and adds us to the priority line. Most importantly, since persistence obeys the norm of justice, no person is hurt in the process. Instead, the persistent petitioner enjoys an upgrade to priority list for a prioritized answered prayer. In other words, persistence increases the chances of expediting answers for prayers.
Persistent prayer enables us to PUSH our petitions into the priority box for express attention from God. Persistence in prayer simply means PUSH: Pray Until Something Happens. Like physical exercise, though strenuous but assures healthier living, so is persistent prayer. Through the persistency of Moses’ hands raised in prayer the Israelites defeated the Amalekites in a fierce battle (Ex 17: 8-13). With this understanding Paul admonishes us: “be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient” (2 Tim. 3:14-4:2). The acronym PUSH also validates Augustine’s teaching: “Pray as though everything depends on God.” Let us therefore learn to PUSH the ACTS of prayer in order to live and testify to the goodness of the Lord.
God bless you, Fr. Levi
Today’s Christianity in general seems to experience certain shifts from the intent of Jesus, the founder. One controversial aspect that has commonly suggested deviation is the poor understanding concerning showing appreciation to God. It is no longer uncommon to preach thanksgiving as a “payback” to God.
Rather than be guided by the biblical teaching that no one is able to pay God back, “Prosperity Gospel Preachers” exploit their flock in the guise of thanksgiving, popularized as “sowing of seed” and tithing. Seed sowing simply argues that cash or material goods (seeds) deposited to the man of God would instigate God to answer prayers, in proportion to what was given. Often, the giving narrative includes a heavier deposit after favors have been received.
Then comes the big question: does this practice represent the teaching of Jesus on appreciating God? The 3 readings of this weekend liturgy offer insightful clues into the right answer. In 2 Kings 5: 14-17 Elisha, the man of God, corrects a payback mentality of King Naaman of Syria. The incredible transformation of his leprous skin initiated a deep faith on the Almighty God of Israel. Naaman intended to pay off for his great cure with material gift to Elisha. Elisha read his mind and rejected his offer, but used the opportunity to teach him that God’s generosity does not require a payback. Naaman quickly grasped Elisha’s message and instead committed himself to the worship of the God of Elisha in his own country by taking some soil from Israel, as material connection. From a onetime “payback” intent, Naaman learned to be thankful to God for the rest of his life.
God appreciates every “thank you” gesture, but not in form of a payback. God encourages generosity as a free act, which implies more significant ways of appreciation, besides material giving. In essence, God is satisfied with our minimal “thank you,” so long as it does not lead to a disconnect from the maximal appreciation of being in a committed love relationship. If Naaman had paid off (the debt) for his cure with his wealth, his found faith in God probably would not have lasted.
The gospel story of the healing of the ten lepers (Lk 17: 11-19) confirms that a minimal “thank you” satisfies God. Also, in addition to payback, ingratitude constitutes another incorrect response toward God’s generosity. Both are unacceptable to God, as proved by the action of Elisha and the words of Jesus: “Ten were cleansed, were they not? … Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” 90% ingratitude is as bad as payback obligation. Both are unwanted extremes.
Such minimal “thank you” is open to grow into the maximal life of thanksgiving. A genuine way of appreciating the benevolence of God is to live a daily life of thanksgiving. Life of thanksgiving entails a daily commitment to the love of God and neighbor, to the extent that it hurts doing the opposite. When life becomes meaningless and dry, without Christ; when materiality fails to bring us happiness; when sufferings and injustice do not sever us from God; when we learn to share our talents, time and treasure without complaint; only then is a life of thanksgiving possible.
Paul, in 2 Tim 2: 8-13, realized this advanced way of appreciating God, and lived a daily life of thanksgiving guided by the saying: “If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; … But if we deny him, he will deny us….” Let us then make the right choice of thanking God minimally and maximally with our lives.
God bless you. Fr. Levi
A sound understanding of the serenity prayer summaries this weekend’s reflection: “Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” This powerful prayer, by Reinhold Niebuhr, articulates the true Christian life. It not only confirms that God works with us, and not for us, but also proves that activity and passivity complement the Christian life. This means that, while hard work effects success or good results in some situations, there are still occasions, when no amount of human efforts can change the situation. In such critical situations, the ability to recline inward and accept our fear restores our serenity, or peace of mind. Therefore, certain pains in life are inevitable, but for a greater purpose. We need wisdom to know when to increase our effort, and when also to absorb certain anxieties of life, by striving to maintain a balance between activity (do something) and passivity (accept the situation).
Without wisdom, believers easily blame God (of the gap) in every unpleasant situation, while nonbelievers find consolation in apportioning blames to unjust governance and society at large. Unfortunately, the lesson is lost to external blames. Worrying and lament increase our sorrows, but inner peace increases our happiness. The solution can only be found in the inward journey of the self.
Solution to anxiety is possible when I learn to compete with myself, and no other. If we learned to take blame and excuse others, our chances of achieving serenity increases. One way to accept the things we cannot change is to accept the hard fact that we are limited humans with its full implications. Yes, humans can change the face of the earth; still yes, human pride can push overboard, and destroy the earth. Truly, wisdom lies at the balance of effecting change and accepting the change, we cannot change.
Prophet Habakkuk, in the first reading, represents us in his lament against God. Even though lament is not false alarm, but a desperate call, the silence of God should not be misinterpreted as lack of empathy. Amidst His silence, God unceasingly is at work for us. The time difference between God and us can be deceptive. If America alone has 3 different time zones, think about the entire world. What matters most, according to God’s reply to Habakkuk, is that God never disappoints. His delay is never late, and the faithful know this (Hab 1:2-3, 2:2-4).
His faithful apostle Paul communicates the same point to Timothy (2 Tim 1: 6-8, 13-14). Paul calls Timothy to compete with himself and grow his potential gifts. Paul knows that when our God-given gifts are properly grown, we automatically find the courage to change the things we can (by bearing testimony to God), and the serenity to accept the things we cannot change (by bearing a share of hardship for the gospel).
More still, in the gospel of Luke 17:5-10, the apostles like Habakkuk, asked Jesus to increase their faith, in order to face their anxieties. Jesus’ response teaches that faith is measured in quality, not in quantity. A quality faith, even though as tiny as a mustard seed, can overcome huge obstacles along one’s way. In other words, Jesus reiterates the fact that peace of mind is achieved not by seeking help from the outside, but through an inner competition that “stirs into flame” the potentials we already possess. As gold is purified in the furnace, inner competition burns off our impurities and brings out the best of us. The furnace journey of life can be awful, but the end-product consoles. Jesus provides a reason why we would go through the crucibles of life: “we are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.” As humans and believers in God, we are playing out our assigned roles in the drama of life. Notice that, best actors lament less, but compete inwardly, by stimulating their potentials. St. Augustine therefore offers a clue: “Pray as though everything depended on God, and work as though everything depended on you.”
God bless you, Fr. Levi
Like venom, the lethal effect of indifference is other-directed. As venom stays harmless in the body of the host, but damages the victim, so does indifference. Deceptively, indifference is a silent killer because it is the mother of the sin of omission. As such, indifference is another name for sin of omission. The Church teaches that sin is possible through four ways: thoughts, words, deeds and omission. Sin by omission is the most elusive. Its inherent danger accounts for the reason Jesus warns us against its lethal consequences.
The deceptive nature of indifference often blurs our vision such that it could be easily ignored. Actually, indifference blinds us toward the needs of others. Our responsibility towards the needs of others can easily elude our consciousness when our righteousness is built only on the letters of the Ten Commandments. This is true because the language of the Ten Commandments overwhelmingly emphasizes the evil to be avoided (“Do not”) rather than the good deeds to practice. The missing details on good deeds, however, are contained in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5: 1-17), and the criteria of Last Judgment (Matt 25: 1-46). Christians are called to grow their spirituality on the Old Testament commandment and the New Testament praxis.
This weekend’s scripture readings obviously attest to the injurious consequences of indifference. Amos, the social justice prophet, reiterates the trong condemnation of complacency of indifference by God, among the rich. As they enjoyed their comfort zones, they ignored the misery of the unfortunate, who languished in the margins (Amos 6: 1a, 4-7).
Aware of the results of such willful negligence, Paul admonished Timothy to translate his faith into action, by pursuing a righteousness that is born from love, patience, and gentleness, towards others (1 Timothy 6: 11-16). The culmination of the danger of indifference is finely captured in the gospel story of Jesus concerning a rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-31). The scariest part is that indifference alone was bad enough to have landed the rich man into an eternal place of torment in the flames. But did Lazarus enter the bosom of Abraham because he was a victim of indifference? John Chrysostom read beyond the social status of the two men in the story, and concluded that wealth and poverty are nothing but masks. The masked personality should be our utmost concern. Lazarus did not go to heaven because he was poor; neither did the rich man go to hell, because he was rich. Both Lazarus and the rich man had ample opportunities to make heaven, by utilizing their peculiar situations. Their ways crossed because they needed each other’s attention.
Unfortunately, the massive wealth of the rich man captivated his attention and blinded his vision towards his spiritual responsibilities for the needy. Although he might not have enjoyed his wealth alone, still it was for a wrong purpose and to the wrong beneficiaries. To feed Lazarus was a gracious opportunity for the rich man to earn his salvation, yet he ignored that. Fortunately, Lazarus patiently managed his condition without cursing God and without envying the rich man.
The best way to appreciate God’s gratuity towards us is to live as mere stewards by extending that love to the needy neighbors. The absence of love is not hate, but indifference. Hate rather results from accumulated effects of indifference. It is no coincidence that the rich man has no name. You and I can be that rich man of our time if we failed to realize that we are mere stewards of God’s wealth and shun indifference.
God bless you. Fr. Levi
God is that “prodigal” Father in Jesus’ parable (Luke 15:1-32). His prodigality is evidential in His infinite lavishness of empathy towards humanity.
God’s compassion transcends human logic and imagination – a reason it sounds stupid by human standard.
Even as sinners, God still searches us out. In the beginning, God entered into a love covenant with humanity. Consistently, humanity has been guilty of infidelity, despite God’s fidelity. Every sin is an expression of disobedience to the will of God. As such sin is an act of infidelity, otherwise known as idolatry. Idolatry simply means a willful rejection of God, while expressing loyalty to another god. Does this mean that humanity is that wicked? The foundational reason lies on the prodigality of God, who fashioned humanity with an unlimited freedom to love Him back or reject Him. Even though to reject God translates to abuse of the gift of freedom, time and time again, God forgives and renews the love covenant.
As a people, the Israelites represented the rest of humanity in the Old Testament covenant. Despite being delivered from slavery, and fed with manna and quail, majority of the people revolted against God in preference to a golden calf, fashioned by Aaron. Still, at the intervention of Moses, God forgave and accepted them as the beloved (Ex 32:7-11, 13-14).
In order to sustain the covenant, God seeks us out in two ways. First, He finds us in our helpless state. Like the shepherd and the woman in the 1st and 2nd parables, God goes in search of the missing us. As sinners, we are the lost sheep, and the lost coin that caused rejoicing and gladness, when, eventually, found. Every sinner is most precious in the eyes of God. God looks beyond the sinner’s disobedience and sees his/her helplessness. As at a time our guilt justifies our condemnation, God’s empathy upon us increases. God’s empathy does not give up on us, until He wins us back.
Paul in his first letter to Timothy recalls being stuck in such pathetic condition, before the risen Lord found and transformed him. He testifies in writing to the prodigal mercy of God (1 Tim. 1:12-17).Second, God patiently misses us, and awaits our return. In the 3rd parable, the father awaits the return of the prodigal son. Often times, God allows us space to express the freedom He bequeathed us. Most often, we get entangled in the process, and rush back to God, bruised, disgraced and empty. If the first approach of seeking us out, suggests that God is policing us, the second response stands as an affirmation that God does not interfere with our freedom.
This 3rd parable also classifies humanity into the personalities of the two sons. May we examine which of the two is a better son? The younger son has often been labeled the bad guy. His abuse of freedom rooted in selfishness, impatience, and debauchery won him the disparaging title, “the prodigal son.” So, what’s the difference between the prodigality of the father and that of his son?
Whereas the father’s image of God reflects the selfless lavishness of God’s compassion towards humanity, the prodigality of the son, connotes greed and selfishness. For this son, family love comes secondary to self-autonomy and pleasure. He explored freedom without responsibility, and met his doom. His radical curiosity almost cost his life. Nevertheless, he learned his lessons. His repentance to return home restored his noble status because the father long awaited his return.
If the younger son was selfish but repentant, his older brother was obedient but unforgiving. Even though he stayed home and obeyed the father, forgiveness or 2nd chance was impracticable. In his narrow thinking, the return of the brother threatened his position, and he lamented over not being appreciated enough. Consequently, he excluded himself from the family celebration. A deeper look shows that this older brother was selfish but concealed it with his military or mechanical obedience. But the prodigal father deserved love-induced obedience.
Most often, there is a tendency for those in the church to judge those outside. If those outside are lured by strange pleasures, like the prodigal son, those inside, like the older son, struggle with unforgiving. The point, however, is clear, both unruly pleasure and unforgiving spirit, keep their victims away from the prodigal love of the Father. Therefore, only a sincere repentance, and return to the prodigal Father, makes a reasonable difference. For cut off from God, we wither and die (John 15: 5-6).
God bless you. Fr. Levi
In a particular seminary, the 4th year theologians of 2001 set had the best-gifted singer. His melodious voice could bring down the angels.
It could also melt a raging heart. He became famous even among the bishops. Soon after his ordination as a transition deacon, another bishop requested the deacon’s own bishop to permit him to sing the gospel
at the ordination of priests of his diocese. The agreement was sealed. The deacon travelled a day before the ordination, and arrived in the
evening to the host diocese.
Dressed in a newly dry-cleaned dark suit that matched his shining black shoes and the clerical collar shirt, he majestically walked into the bishop’s court with a carry-on bag and a briefcase. Sighting an old man trimming the flowers, he called out: “Hey, old man, come and carry my luggage, I am a special guest of your bishop.” Without any sign of hesitation, the man carried his luggage and silently led him to the apartment of the cathedral administrator.
At the sound of the doorbell, the administrator opened the door, and respectfully greeted the old man, saying: “Good evening, my Lord bishop, are you done exercising?” “I was on it, before our August visitor arrived, and requested my help for his luggage.” “He did, what?,” exclaimed the administrator. Standing lifeless, the pompous deacon wished he could disappear or rather awaken from a dream. Ashamed of himself, he pleaded for forgiveness from the bishop. Surprisingly, the bishop said: “My son, I already forgave you at the gate, because empty cans make the loudest noise.” The ending of the drama is a story of another day.
This story confirms that pride goes before a fall. It as well affirms that you cannot tell a book from its cover. These two idioms summarize this story and underscore the scriptural teachings on the need to embrace humility as a standard of life.
The young deacon represents us. Like the bishop said, he didn’t realize he was empty of substance. Who we are should not be determined by what we have. The reverse is more reasonable and true. We can easily lose what we have, but hardly can we lose who we are. Unfortunately, the deacon defined himself by his gifted voice, which deteriorated into pride and arrogance. Besides his melodious voice, he lacked manners, which exposed his emptiness. Invariably, he allowed what he possessed to overshadow who he should be.
As the gospel teaches, we are bound to fall unless we keep ourselves low. Humility is all gain, because whoever lies on the ground has no fear for a fall. Any movement from that lowest base constitutes a rise. Humility encourages the subtle distinction between attachment to possession, and detachment from it. Whoever succeeds to detach the self from possession concentrates in enriching the personality in humility. The bishop dressed in work clothes, while trimming flowers is a good example. Humility like water quenches the flaming fire of pride in our nature (Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29). Like the sage who loves parables, the bishop metaphorically instructs the pompous mind of the deacon. Should he heed the path of wisdom, and learn humility, he too would become wise. Humility therefore is not only a personal virtue; it is also contagiously missionizing.
Humility is the nature of God. God’s awe rather than repel, attracts the angels and us (Heb. 12: 18-19, 22-24). In its truest sense, humility plays out in genuine giving. And the greatest of alms is the sharing of one’s life. Both are present in God because God allowed us a share in the divine life. Accordingly, Jesus in the parable of a wedding banquet (Lk 14: 1, 7-14) condemned self-exaltation, but recommends humility for us, especially in almsgiving. Such desired humility and alms could be collaborated in the one act of “voluntary poor” (becoming poor for the sake of the kingdom). Therefore, if humiliation is negative because it is imposed and undermines, why don’t we choose humility (willfully), since it shields us from unnecessary embarrassment, but also exalts us?
God bless you. Fr Levi
The narrow gate simply means the uneasy road. Many, in a bid to avoid the challenges of the uneasy road, choose shortcuts, instead.
Shortcuts, however, distort the growth or developmental process.
Imagine the possibility of a caring parent downloading piano lessons into the brain of her child. At best, the child would become an entertainer that is not entertained. The absence of memory on skill acquisition and development makes the child a stranger in a skill he displays. In truth, self-fulfilling happiness is attained when individuals improve on their own abilities. Why the rush? Why the shortcuts?
Compared to another child of the same age, who went through the gradual but rigorous piano lessons the computer-programed child is as good as a machine, whose human experiences of learning piano were robbed. While the programed-child’s skill is fixed, the child that took the piano lessons enjoys imaginable room for improvement. With sincere interest and practices, this latter child can beat his set goal and even play better than any instructor.
The child that underwent a gradual training with the implied disciplines reflects God’s choice of parenting. God’s mill grinds slowly, but surely. Only the patient few go through the narrow gate of God’s discipline.
A certain countryside man lost the wife, while she was being delivered of her baby. With the love of his life gone, he transferred all his love to his son and raised him accordingly. He pampered him extensively, and hoped to expose him to the realities of the world when he became an adult. Unfortunately, the son became used to the pampered life and radiated hopelessness to both himself and his dad.
After several sleepless nights, this man decided to choose the narrow path for his beloved son. Still, he had two major challenges. 1) How could he convince the son to embrace this unknown path? 2) Is he strong enough to see his son go through the rough narrow path? Regardless, he preferred to test run his idea.
One early morning, he shared a story with his son. He said, “my beloved son, because you are all I have, I have to tell you the best-kept secret of my life. There is a treasure box I buried in the land behind my house. A traveller lost it two years before your birth, and I have been waiting for his return to claim it. Twenty years after, I doubt if he would ever come. Unfortunately, due to old age, I can no longer dig and have forgotten the exact spot I buried it. But if you found it, you will become wealthy and famous. Remember, a treasure is best kept secret.”
The attraction of wealth forced the son to embrace the discipline of hard work. He struggled with his tools initially, but got better by day. First, he fenced the entire piece of land in order to protect it. Then, he dug for 30 days, but found nothing. Out of compassion his dad almost discouraged him from digging farther. At this moment, nothing could stop his search. So, he dug up the entire land in another ten days, without success. Could it be that someone else found the treasure box or there was no box?
“My beloved son,” the dad called him, “even though you did not found any box, I am still proud of your accomplishments. I never believed you could work so hard in your entire life. As we try to unravel the mystery surrounding the box, I suggest you plant some crops in the tilled land.” The son saw it as more opportunity to further his search and complied. Weeks and months passed by and the harvest was amazing.
After sales, the son became a rich and famous farmer because he never left farming business. Only then did the dad explain to him that there was no treasure box, besides the latent treasure of hard work, made possible through discipline. The son learned the lesson and loved his dad more. This later dad that balanced incredible love for the son with discipline, also conforms to the parenting standard of God.
God’s love inculcates discipline in us. So, “do not disdain the discipline of the Lord,” (Heb. 12 5-7, 11-13). Discipline is like pruning a fruit bearing plant in order to increase its fruit production. It is like physical exercise that burns unwanted waste in order to achieve optimal functioning of the vital organs. Although the process is gradual and entails sacrifices, the end is incomparably rewarding. It is better therefore, to endure certain sacrifices for a while, and enjoy in eternity, by striving to journey through the narrow gate of life (Lk. 13: 22:30).
God bless you. Fr. Levi
The centerpiece of our reflection is the strange quote from Jesus Christ: “I have come to set the earth on fire …
there is a baptism with which I must be baptized! Do you think I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division,” (Lk 12:49-53).
Isn’t this scary? Is Christ truly divisive? Could he be contradicting himself? How can we reconcile the offensive language of “division,” but “no peace,” and wishing a “blazing fire” on earth, with his nonviolent, love-inspired and compassionate moral principles?
Contextual understanding might be a useful tool. So, what does Jesus intend to communicate to his audience? Two major points can be noticed. The first is the definition of the Messiah-ship of Christ. The second is the inescapable consequences of standing with Christ.
1) The metaphor of fire and baptism: there are other meanings of fire and baptism in the scripture. This context does not refer to the consuming fire of destruction or the sign of acceptance of animal sacrifices by God. It includes, but is not actually the fire of the Holy Spirit, as witnessed on Pentecost day. Rather, the fire signifies the inner burning fervor and zeal that drive someone into doing the will of God, even when there are favorable reasons to reject or decline it. The greatest fear (reason) not to submit to God’s will is the threat to life.
However, as earthly pilgrims, our lives are not ended at death, but are radically transformed from mortality to immortality in union with God. What therefore matters most is gaining life in eternity: “whoever wishes to save his life, will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel, will find it,” (Mark 8:35).
Similarly, the baptism Jesus refers to is the witnessing to the gospel with one’s life. James and John understood this meaning, when they answered Jesus that they were able to drink of his cup, and to participate in his destined baptism (Matt 20:22). In essence, this form of baptism is martyrdom. Martyrdom is the ultimate challenge of the Christian pilgrim. It appears stupid, even though, the wisest investment in the bank of God.
2) Division: Jesus prophetically announces the inseparable consequences of a genuine pilgrim, who patterns his life, after that of Christ. Although “division” sounds divisive, still it is in context absolutely consequential rather than intended. To stand with Christ along the rough journey of life has the necessary implications of being scorned, abused, victimized, rejected, hated or killed, even by close relatives. Nevertheless, a genuine Christian pilgrim looks beyond these torturous and oppressive hurdles, and stand steadfastly with Christ in defense of the noblest principles of truth, justice, mercy, and love. A few choose this narrow course of life. This brave minority constitutes genuine Christian pilgrims, whose lives exemplify the blazing fire that inspires baptism by martyrdom.
Every genuine pilgrim swims against the current of his age and time. He/she is a light that diminishes the surrounding darkness. As long as this light shines, the agents of darkness are irritated. In retaliation, the evildoers conspire to victimize the pilgrim of light. Like Jeremiah, whose plot by the princes almost led to his death (Jer. 38: 4-6, 8-10), the Christian pilgrim encounters daily threats, oppression, and ploys. Despite the overwhelming pressures, he/she is faith-full.
The cross of Christ is the anchor and source of strength. As instructed by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, through a focus on the sacrifice of the Christ, Christian pilgrims are rejuvenated in order to unfear physical death, as true witnesses (Heb. 12: 1-4). While learning from the Master’s example of passion, death and revelation, their bond of friendship with Christ stays tighter than biological ties. Nothing whatsoever can separate a genuine Christian pilgrim from the love of God. Not even the attractions of families and friends can: “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come; Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord,” (Romans 8:38-39). Stay focused on the example of Christ.
God bless you, Fr. Levi
Pilgrims walk by faith, not by sight. They see with the eyes of faith. Pilgrims might not have clear vision
of their destination and the implied challenges of their missions. But they are certain that God is their
faithful guide and companion.
Pilgrims are on a journey, but not as tourists. Whereas tourists choose their destinations, and rely on the satisfaction of their travel plans and provisions, pilgrims patiently depend on the evolving plan of God. Unlike tourists, whose plan includes a homebound/return arrangement, pilgrims desire the unknown but “a better homeland, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God for he has prepared a city for them” (Heb. 11:16). Our fathers in faith lived their lives as pilgrims (Wis. 18:6-9)
The scripture presents Abraham as an ideal pilgrim. In his life story Abraham journeyed to an unknown destination, trusting God as his guide and companion. Moses too, walked with God. Like Abraham, Moses struggled in his journey with God. Both made hasty mistakes (impatience) because they had no blue print plans for their journeys. Their impatience almost ruined God’s plan for them. Abraham, through the birth of Ishmael (with Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant), established a long lasting feud between the generations of Isaac and Ishmael. Similarly, Moses saw, but could not enter the Promised Land. Still in their struggles, they stayed faithful to God.
Nevertheless, whereas Moses’ journey was a homeward return, Abraham journeyed to an unknown new home, without desiring a return to his native homeland: “If they (Abraham and Sarah) had been thinking of their land from which they had come, they would have had the opportunity to return,” (Heb. 11:15).
In essence, both Moses and Abraham walked faithfully with God and died, without experiencing the completion of their promises from God. Their journeys were rendered incomplete probably because their final destination is heaven. Faith is the ship that conveys believers beyond the dark spot of reason. Through faith, Abraham and Moses relied on the consistent but gradual manifestations of God’s plan in their lives. Their willingness and availability to be instruments of God distinguished them as genuine pilgrims.
This weekend’s readings speak to us, specifically as earthly pilgrims, in order that we might learn from the derivative characteristics of an exemplar ancient pilgrim. Conscious of our final destination, we are called to travel light, but also invest wisely in the heavenly bank, where fraud or robbers cannot operate, and where taxes are exempt (Luke 12: 33-34). Still, where the reward is no less than a hundred fold. As we journey toward this unknown, readiness with our lamps lit and resilience, strengthen us to be vigilant when the master will return. Most importantly, being dutifully focused, but also trusting the fidelity of God, our master and guide, sustains our faith that God’s plan for us must surely come to fulfillment at God’s own time.
This is true because as pilgrims we walk by faith, not by sight. Since God created us for the definite purpose of union with Him, we cannot find rest outside of that purpose (Augustine). Therefore, “where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.” Putting your heart elsewhere amounts to vanity.
God bless you, Fr. Levi