Let the whole world know

It warms the cockles of our hearts to watch two great giants in the marvellous project of evangelisation: Peter and Paul. While Peter speaks to the Jews in particular, Paul reaches out to the Gentiles. Luke devotes to them the greater part of the ‘Acts of the Apostles’, a book carved out from his Gospel. From there is taken the first reading of all the Sundays of Easter until Pentecost Sunday. The book's second half (chapters 13-28) covers three missionary journeys that Paul undertook, between A.D. 46-48, to Asia Minor (major part of modern-day Turkey), to Greece, and finally to Rome, which was the heart of the gentile world.

The Jews, entitled to travel throughout the Roman Empire, would seek and speak to other Jews in any important city they visited. For instance, in Antioch of Pisidia, Paul and Barnabas, a prominent early, Jerusalem Christian of Cypriot Jewish extract, visited the Jewish community at their sabbath gatherings in the synagogue. Out of deference to him as a visitor, they asked Paul to be the commentator of the day. Paul seized the opportunity to highlight a series of facts that not only give Jewish history its meaning but also clearly point to Christ. Paul showed that God’s promises to Israel were fulfilled in the Resurrection.

What Paul spoke on the following Sabbath forms the crux of today’s reading (Acts 13: 14. 43-52). This time, Paul did not address the Jews alone but all the God-fearing, including non-Jews. This approach achieved three things: it proved that Paul was no racist; it brought hope to the gentiles; and it precluded the Jews from feeling superior to others, in the belief that only they were worthy of hearing God’s word and being called His children.

From the people’s response it is evident that they were thirsting to hear the Good News. The following sabbath they brought along other pagans. Although such progress aroused jealousy, revilement and persecution from the Jews, the inspired duo did not cower down. Behold their parting shot: ‘It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us.’ And then, Paul and Barnabas shook off the dust from their feet and went out to the uttermost parts of the earth.

For his part, John, on account of his faith, was deported to Patmos, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, around the year A.D. 95. The youngest of the Lord’s apostles, he died thereabouts in his mid-nineties. The place is now famous as the location where the Evangelist received the visions that we read about in the Book of Revelation. Here he addresses Christians suffering for the faith, in imitation of Christ.

Seeing how the Jews as a whole did not accept Jesus, the apostles’ effort might have seemed a complete failure. John, however, has an optimistic vision. The ‘four angels’ he refers to earlier in the chapter refers to the elect, or say, the Jews who followed Jesus as well as those who did not believe in Him, through no fault of their own, but who were saved through His Death and Resurrection. ‘A great multitude which no man could number, from every nation from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb’ thus points to the incredible success of the salvation of humanity.

Are the ones who will be saved always those ‘who have come out of the great tribulation’, that is, martyrdom? Obviously, not all will die as martyrs, but Christians should have continually before their eyes those who have died for the faith. By God's grace, those who serve Him night and day will hunger and thirst no more; He who sits upon the heavenly throne will shelter them and wipe away every tear from their eyes. That is to say, the Lamb of God will double as their Shepherd and guide them to springs of living water.

This is precisely the theme of the day's Gospel (Jn 10: 27-30). Jesus the Son of God is the ‘Good Shepherd’ who promises his sheep eternal life. His flock is not synonymous with the Jewish nation or any other; it is those who believe in Him that comprise His flock. He invites people from different nations or civilisations; they will recognise His voice and believe in His Word. This being the focus of the fourth Sunday of Easter, aptly called ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’, all three lectionary cycles draw from the same chapter of John.

Thus, the readings of today dwell on the messianic role of Jesus: He is the Lamb of God; He is the Good Shepherd; He is the Bread and Water of Life; He is our Saviour. Those who believe in Him and follow Him will be saved. This is a message that we are duty-bound to spread with passion and conviction, letting the world know that Jesus is Lord of the Universe and our most precious Saviour.

Called to give witness to Christ

We can see the wonders that the Lord has made; we can see the Holy Spirit at work. In the first reading (Acts 5: 27-32, 40-41) the Apostles are a transfigured lot, full of courage and enthusiasm. Questioned a second time by the high priest, they give a spirited and gutsy witness about the Risen Lord. Peter, clad with the authority imparted by the Master, proclaims His Death and Resurrection. Equally important, to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, Peter makes known that Jesus Christ is in their midst, in flesh and blood, as the Lord and Saviour of the world.

It is truly heartening to know that Jerusalem was filled with the Apostles’ teaching: today, we are called to do the same around us, in the cities and villages we live in. The Apostles steadfastly brought the Good News to their people, Israel: who could deny the Passion, Death and Resurrection of our Lord? In a bid to disown their part in the brutal killing of Jesus, the authorities sheepishly urged the preachers not to speak in His Name, and they let them go. For their part, the Apostles were ever-ready to ‘suffer dishonour’ – a death like His – for His sake.

What did the Apostles go ahead and preach, they who until yesterday seemed shaky, weak and tired? In one word, they simply gave witness to their faith. What is reported in verses 29-32 is a summary of the apostolic preaching, pointing to its most essential elements, a rough-and-ready reckoner for us. This should be the posture of every committed Christian: to continue in Peter’s footsteps, proclaiming Jesus in good times and in bad; to obey God rather any human authority. Indeed, all of this makes up the life of the Church and what we are called to be and do as Christians!

Not only was the earthly Jerusalem filled with echoes of Jesus’ Holy Name; from the second reading (Rev 5: 11-14) it is clear that there was rejoicing in the New and Eternal Jerusalem as well. St John heard the voice of angels singing, ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!’ And every creature in heaven and on earth, under the earth and in the sea repeated the praises, saying, ‘Amen!’ Which means that, upon His Resurrection, the whole of creation joyfully veered towards Him who is the Lord of Heaven and Earth, the centre of all creation.

Is Jesus the centre of our lives? Are we geared up to repeat the sounding joy? Given that the imprint of God’s law is in our hearts, as St Paul says, we should be continually praising Him in word and deed. Our hearts should be restless until they rest in Him. Here, I remember what my dear Avó (grandmother) used to say: ‘When we see God face to face one day, it is only Him and none else that we shall contemplate.’ Let’s look forward to that day when we will be at least palely worthy of such a privilege!

Holy privileges come our way as we journey on our earthly pilgrimage. In the Gospel (Jo 21: 1-19), after preparing the disciples, by means of the miraculous catch, which was carried out under Peter’s leadership and in his boat, Jesus indicates that Peter will be the Shepherd of His only flock from the moment Jesus departs and until His Second Coming. Peter would shoulder the responsibility of the first Church; he who was a mere fisherman was called to be a fisher of men.

That Jesus showed up on the beach, unannounced, while some of the disciples were about to going fishing, simply means that an encounter with the Lord can happen anytime, anywhere, anyhow. He met them on the lonely shore in the light of dawn; where will He meet us? Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him; what about us? Do we love Him and Him alone, or is He just one among many? And then, when He says, ‘Follow me,’ will we readily do so? We may not be called to lead, but are we ready to follow? The life of the Church and our own salvation hinges on our response.  

The Resurrection and our Faith

Thanks to Easter, Sunday came to replace the Sabbath as the Day of the Lord. We now gather very especially on this day, to witness the mystical renewal of the Holy Sacrifice of Calvary and to participate in the real presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. By doing so, we do not merely fulfil an obligation but a personal need for ever-closer union with God.

We might expect Jerusalem to have been a city transformed after the momentous event of the Resurrection; we might imagine news of the Resurrection to have spread like wild fire to make it known that Jesus is God. But none of that happened. The city and the world were wrapped up in themselves, as though nothing had happened. How fortunate that you and I can cherish our Easter meeting with the Lord!

It is delightful that Easter does not last just a day but forever, although liturgically, it is a fifty-day period until Pentecost (seventh Sunday after Easter). In the run-up to this Sunday, there is a deluge of post-Resurrection stories that will hold us in awe and give our faith a boost. Through the week we heard narratives – from the Acts of the Apostles and the four Evangelists – and we have three more today.

In the first reading (Acts 5:12-16), the Apostles begin to feel the power of the Risen Lord. After they had been afraid and not knowing what to do, Jesus empowered them to preach the Good News and to forgive sins. So, they began to teach with authority and heal with compassion. They were like clones of the Master, his hands and feet, working wonders in His Holy Name. Yet it was not by their miracles alone that believers were added to the Lord; it was by the Holy Spirit’s action on minds and hearts that the numbers steadily rose.

After the Resurrection, the Apostles came to be held in high honour, yet theirs was not a runaway victory. Sometimes, they faced persecution and even ran into doctrinal tangles. But as the second reading (Rev 1:9-11A, 12-13, 17-19) makes it clear, God was in control, as He always is. The Divine Master had promised that He would be with the Apostles every step of their way and His work would prevail over any persecution. Here we see St John, who was exiled for the faith in the tiny rocky island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea, warmly comforted and gently prodded by Jesus’ words that defy paraphrasing: ‘Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. Now write what you see, what is and what is to take place hereafter.’

What utterances of deep reassurance, of wisdom, of truth, expressing the ultimate reality! Here is the water of life – if we drink of it, we will thirst no more. Here is the bread of life – if we eat of it, we will never be hungry. Yet, how many from among the learned and worldly-wise today would believe in Him who is the Author of Life, the Master Physician, the Good Shepherd, the Lamb of God, the Light of the World, the Prince of Peace, the Son of the Living God, the Way, the Truth and the Life?

In the Gospel passage (Jn 20:19-31), we meet Thomas who has meanwhile gone down in history as the ‘Doubting Thomas’. He had been sceptical of his companions’ account, not of the Resurrection per se. Without taking amiss his interim refusal to believe, Jesus let Thomas feel His crucifixion wounds. That the disciple stopped short of touching Him and instantly believed, saying, ‘My Lord and my God’, does credit to the future Apostle of India. Of course, Jesus rounded it off with a ‘beatitude’: ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’, commending those who approach divine claims with eyes of faith.

Thanks to this unforgettable story (which only St John and the not the synoptic Gospels mention, and is read on the Second Sunday of Easter regardless of the year cycle), we get to understand the true nature of the Resurrection and of the faith we must cultivate: First, that Jesus rose physically and not by means of some virtual reality technique! Second, that seeking a proof does not work against but rather confirms a person’s faith. Thirdly, that doubt can indeed be part of our faith journey and even lead to great turnarounds – an experience so human that Thomas’ words are acknowledged after the Agnus Dei in the Holy Mass.

In conclusion, the readings of today invite us to look into our own faith experiences; to not be afraid to proclaim the Gospel; and to humbly turn our gaze to Christ and experience His love and mercy, particularly on the Feast of Divine Mercy that is celebrated today. A very Happy Feast to you all!

From Palms to The Passion

It is interesting to note the Liturgy of the Word on Palm Sunday, also referred to as Passion Sunday. While the first two readings and the psalm – Is 50: 4-7; Ps 21: 8-9, 17, 18a, 19-20, 23-24; Phil 2: 6-11 – remain the same for cycles A, B and C, the Gospel changes from year to year, highlighting the three Synoptics: St Matthew (26: 14-27, 66), St Mark (14: 1-15, 47), and St Luke (22: 14-23, 56), respectively. They give an account of the Last Supper, the Agony in the Garden, the unfair Trial, the Way to Calvary, and the Crucifixion and Death.

Thus, St John is the only evangelist who does not figure on Palm Sunday. The Beloved Disciple – who offers a selective and somewhat different perspective on the Divine Master, more theological and mystical – is very especially reserved for Maundy Thursday (Jn 13: 1-15) and Good Friday (Jn 18: 1-19, 42), besides two weekday readings. While the Gospel of Thursday focusses on the Last Supper, that of Friday is a Passion narrative that begins with Gethsemane and ends with our Lord’s Death on the Cross.

That much for the readings. Now, as regards the designation of the sixth Sunday of Lent: it is officially called ‘Palm Sunday’, recalling the day when Jesus arrived to a hero’s welcome for the Passover in Jerusalem. No wonder, Chesterton’s ‘Donkey’ was ecstatic: ‘There was a shout about my ears, And palms before my feet,’ he said. But what finally determined the choice of a beast ‘with a monstrous head and sickening cry’, ‘the tattered outlaw of the earth’?

Jesus had walked up to Jerusalem in the past. Although the Synoptics speak of just one Passover, St John states that He celebrated three Passover Feasts in the city of David. Yet, this time he chose to use a donkey, to enter in peace, as a king traditionally did, into a city that was his very own – unlike a conquering king that arrived on a warhorse. Jesus borrowed a colt, which was soon thereafter returned to its owner, realising many Old Testament allusions, the most important being 'Behold, O Jerusalem of Zion, the King comes onto you meek and lowly riding upon a donkey.' (Zech 9: 9)

But what were the crowds so excited about that they should thus cheer Jesus? Pope Benedict XVI, in his book Jesus of Nazareth, states that ‘Jesus had set out with the Twelve, but they were gradually joined by an ever-increasing crowd of pilgrims.’ On the way, the blind Bartimaeus who was cured clinched it; he became a fellow pilgrim on the way to Jerusalem. The miracle filled the people with hope that Jesus might indeed be the new David for whom they were waiting.

Jesus was not going to re-establish the Davidic kingdom – far from it! He had always said that his kingdom is not of this world. Yet, the disciples’ act of enthusiastically seating Jesus on that beast of burden was ‘a gesture of enthronement in the tradition of the Davidic kingship’; the pilgrims who, infected by that enthusiasm, joined in spreading out their garments and waving out palms, mirrored a tradition of Israelite kingship; and their exultant cries, though reported differently by the evangelists, all point to the Old Testament. Still, those players were blissfully unaware that they were fulfilling the Scripture.

The most important part of Scripture was, however, played out was by Jesus Himself. He who had come to celebrate the ‘Passover of the Jews’, as the Synoptic evangelists call it, was in truth observing ‘the Passover of His death and Resurrection’, as St John the Evangelist puts it, for this is what the Saviour said to His disciples: ‘I have been very eager to eat this Passover meal with you before my suffering begins. For I tell you now that I won’t eat this meal again until its meaning is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God.’ (Lk 22:15-16). Jesus fulfilled the Passover by becoming the Sacrificial Lamb.

Our Saviour’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem quickly led to His sorrowful Passion on Calvary. That is how ‘Palm Sunday’ becomes synonymous with ‘Passion Sunday’ in the Liturgy of the Word.

God’s Infinite Love and Mercy

The readings of the fifth Sunday of Lent (Is 43: 16-21; Phil 3: 8-14; Jn 8: 1-11) invite us to be humble, show love and mercy to our neighbour and, in turn, experience God’s loving kindness. They illustrate the same challenge and hope that we daily encounter in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’

Who can deny that by our modern, rationalist approach to life we are easily given to pride and pessimism? This is the bane of our times. But, as Christians, we cannot allow ourselves to lose hope; the Israelites hoped in God and He rescued them from Babylon. And does He not rescue us from the vagaries of our individual and collective lives? He is a great, big, wonderful God, always opening up 'a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.' He bids us to refrain from dwelling on the past, on the things of old; he wants us to become a new people, for whom He will do marvellous new things.

It is obvious that God is not dead; He is present in history and continues to fulfil His work of salvation in the Church and the world at large. He knows each and every one of us so intimately and loves us so tenderly that only an unfeeling person will fail to reciprocate. For his part, St Paul says, ‘Once I found Christ, all those things that I might have considered profit, I reckoned as loss… garbage.’ The Apostle of the Gentiles employs superlatives only to better express the absolute value that is Christ, the Son of the Living God.

Knowing Christ is by far the highest ideal that a Christian can desire. It is not a mere intellectual knowledge of Him but a personal relationship with Him. that. Notice how Saul who was once a persecutor of Christ turned out to be one of His greatest advocates, Paul: he who was a sinner was completely transformed by his faith in Christ. Likewise, Jesus who has crossed from death to life helps us cross from a life of sin to a life of grace. Let us praise and thank Him for kindly conquering us.

Finally, the Gospel passage: a luminous example of how God welcomes us with arms open wide. The moment He finds even a hint of repentance in our hearts, His healing power is at work in us. The adulterous woman’s dramatic encounter with Jesus is an example of God’s infinite love and mercy. Jesus does not condone her act – ‘Sin no more’, He tells her, in no uncertain terms – but He forgives her fault. Our Creator, who knows best how we are engaged in a hard battle against sin, is always there for us.

What a lesson that is for us who take the moral high ground! Are we not swift to detect the speck in another’s eye while failing to see the log in our own? About the Scribes and Pharisees who brought that woman to Jesus, says Fulton Sheen in his Life of Christ: ‘So set were they on their barren controversy with the Messiah that they did not scruple to use a woman’s shame to score a point.’ That is the bitterest degradation a woman could suffer. The charge being almost irrefutable, how would Our Lord choose between the Law of Moses, which ordered death by stoning, and His own prescription of love and mercy?

It was a tricky matter. The Roman rulers reserved the right to impose a death penalty, whereas by the Mosaic Law an adulterous woman was to be stoned by the people. Which of the laws would Jesus apply to her? Either choice would be an affront to the other. Further, if Jesus had condemned the woman, they would say He was not merciful; if He had condoned her act, He would be contravening the Mosaic law. And what is more, by disobeying this divine directive, He would be negating His own divinity. Hence, their knotty question: ‘What do you say about her?’

As the popular saying goes, ‘Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.’ Jesus expressed it in more challenging terms: ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.’ Who was fit enough to defend or execute the Mosaic Law? They were sinners, yet accusers; whereas Our Lord, the only Innocent One, refrained from accusing. His mission was to save the soul. He had said in the Sermon on the Mount, ‘Pass no judgement, and you will not be judged, for as you judge others, so will you yourselves be judged, and whatever measure you deal out to others will be dealt back to you.’

Then again, there is the question of gender discrimination (glaring to our modern eyes): what about men involved in that reprehensible act? Why would they go scot-free? These and many other issues only Jesus, who was man and God, could resolve: He had come not to destroy the law but to perfect and fulfil it!

Today, Jesus invites us particularly to check the state of our souls rather than comment on our neighbours’. Let us admit to our sinfulness and be committed to change our miserable lives; and should we wish to fix our broken world, let love, fraternal correction and mercy be our tools. God will then put His finishing touches to our efforts, with His infinite love and mercy.

(Banner: Rubens, 'Christ and the woman caught in adultery')

Our Cause of Rejoicing

Perhaps no other parable is as striking and moving as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It is the third and last of a set of parables on mercy. The two that precede it are the parables of the Lost Sheep and of the Lost Coin. While these two represent a sinner’s search for the Heavenly Father, the story of the Prodigal Son shows how the Father searches for and receives a contrite sinner – not commending his sins, for sure, but forgiving them. That is why the parable strikes a chord with everyone.

The Parable has been variously titled the ‘Parable of the Two Brothers’ or ‘Two Sons’ or yet the ‘Lost Son’. But that is to look merely at the human side of the story. By thus limiting its scope we are likely to turn a deaf ear to the true message of what is by now a very familiar tale. So, it is hugely important that we look at it as a harbinger of hope and joy.

Hope and joy cannot spring from, or be sustained by, human endeavours alone. For instance, despite the inherent drama of the parable in hand, it would be just another story if divested of its divine radiance. It is, therefore, not farfetched to alternatively title it the ‘Parable of the Loving Father’ or of the ‘Forgiving Father’ – or even of the ‘Prodigal Father’, in the best sense of the term, that is, one who loves bountifully! After all, divine love and forgiveness are ever-fresh even two millennia after Jesus made it known.

The present parable tells of the younger of the two sons who, by demanding the share of inheritance due to him, infringed tradition and offended his father. He squandered his wealth in loose living and, only when in dire straits, retraced his steps, mentally prepared to work as a servant in his father’s house. Much against his expectation, his father not only welcomed him with open arms but also treated him as a beloved son – as if nothing had happened. No doubt the mother is sorely missing from the scene; but perhaps that is only to show her love is encompassed in God's omnipotent goodness.

Rembrandt, 'The Return of the Prodigal Son', c. 1661–1669. Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

It is obvious that the young man considered that he deserved stringency, not mercy. On the other hand, Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Dives in Misericordia, says that his father’s joyful response indicates that ‘even if he is a prodigal, a son does not cease to be truly his father's son; it also indicates a good that has been found again, which in the case of the prodigal son was his return to the truth about himself.’

What a soul-stirring finale that would have made except that the elder brother literally spoilt the party. On the face of it, he was not wrong. Had not the Benjamin received his share and left the father’s house merry as a bird? Had not his actions disgraced the family? While this is undeniable, is it not equally true that the habitually decorous elder brother was now being self-righteous, resentful, selfish, jealous, and merciless? He may have adhered to the letter of the law, but not its spirit!

We can identify ourselves with the Parable because we are like either of the sons. The Encyclical notes that the younger son ‘in a certain sense is the man of every period, beginning with the one who was the first to lose the inheritance of grace and original justice.’ We may smugly condemn the younger one – he has done something awful that none can accuse us of! We do not forget his flaws, much less appreciate his regrets. We fail to thank God that no such slip-up has landed us in a bad situation. We fail to realise that we ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’.

The good news is that we can change it for the better if we walk back towards our father – the only perfect character in the Parable. He was sinned against by both his sons, but holds it not against them. He represents God the Father who is always happy to find His lost sons – you and me; and to call upon others – symbolised by the elder son – to partake of that joy. The Parable is a fitting response from Jesus to those who had criticised Him for accepting tax collectors and other public sinners at His table. But then, had God kept a record of our sins, who would survive? So, let’s go ahead and ‘forgive those who have sinned against us.’

That God treats us with love and mercy calls for great rejoicing; it is a crowning of our poor little spiritual journey. That is why the fourth Sunday of Lent is called Laetere Sunday, from the words Laetare Jerusalem (‘Rejoice with Jerusalem’, Is. 66:10) in the Latin introit for the Mass of the day. This is a refreshing change in the midst of the sombre mood of Lent. That the Gospel has revealed the Father’s infinite love and mercy and the possibility of our reconciliation with Him and our neighbour is the ultimate reason for our joy.

Encounter with God

The Gospels of the first two Sundays of Lent were devoted to the Temptation in the Desert and the Transfiguration: in the former, the Son of God laid bare His spiritual fibre, while in the latter, the Father expressed His total trust in His Son. Convinced that we have seen the True God, we today focus on the need for an ever-closer encounter with Him.

God has chosen you and me to follow Him; it is up to us to respond. Moses did so by approaching the burning bush; and on behalf of doubting Thomases of all times, he bade God to better identify Himself. God called Himself ‘I am’ – employing a simple but remarkable verb that pinpoints the core of existence. Closer to our times, French philosopher Descartes famously declared, ‘I think, therefore I am’; which A L Thomas presented as: ‘I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.’

Be that as it may, God’s description strikes much deeper: ‘I am who I am.’ You can’t push the boundaries any further. That is because God was present at the beginning of time; He is present now, and ever shall be. In fact, He it is who made Time with a capital T – and, very tenderly, still makes time for us every day! He revealed His greatness and transcendence to Moses but was never aloof. On the contrary, sensitive to the problems of the Israelites, He liberated them from their desperate situation in Egypt.

But if you’ve been wondering why He doesn’t do the same in our day and age – see how criminals have a field day, and despots, none to question them! – be sure that God has not abdicated his responsibilities; He is in our midst and keeps His promises. Chances are we fail to see God in everyday happenings – in the bustle of lives, we hardly make time for Him!

Jesus is the new and greater Moses. He is the Son of God who has spoken to modern man. He is the ‘I am’ variously qualified: ‘I am the Bread of Life,’ He said; ‘I am the Light of the World’; ‘I am the Door’; ‘I am the Good Shepherd’; ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life’; ‘I am the Way and the Truth and the Life’; ‘I am the Vine’. He is indeed the Messiah, the Saviour of the World, always there for us.

How about a closer encounter God! Like Moses, we too will see the burning bush if we care to do a little bit of soul-searching – by believing, hoping and trusting in God; by loving Him, praising Him, blessing Him, glorifying Him, worshipping and giving Him thanks. Constancy in prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and receiving Our Lord in the Eucharist will make of us living tabernacles of God’s Holy Presence.

‘We’ve got a great, big, wonderful God,’ haven’t we? Let’s cultivate a sense of wonder and gratitude! We’ve had the grace to be born in the Christian fold – let’s value our identity! We’re called to be the light of the world and salt of the earth – let’s show it in real terms!

On the other hand, let’s not be reluctant to speak of God and for God. Let’s not fall into the temptation to disown the True God and embrace false gods. It will mean a breach of the First Commandment, a mortal sin, and an outrage crying out to Heaven!

At any rate, every saint has had a past and every sinner has got a future. We are those sinners; we have fallen short of the glory of God. Yet, calamities and disgraces that come our way (be it the war or even the covid-19 pandemic) are not punishments but only a natural consequence of the faulty exercise of our free will. They are at best a heavenly reminder of the urgent need for repentance and inner conversion.

Finally, even if God remains a fascinating mystery to our limited minds, we can rest assured that He is a God who blesses, forgives, heals, redeems and crowns us with love and compassion. With humility, contrition and good courage we can have a change of heart, a deeper union, and a fuller communion with Him who is, was and ever shall be – the Lord our God!

Bridging humanity and divinity

The readings today bring into sharp focus the relation between humanity and divinity. Whereas ‘Christ assumed a true human body by means of which the invisible God became visible,’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 92), ‘the human person is the summit of visible creation in as much as he or she is created in the image and likeness of God.’ (63) ‘Endowed with a spiritual and immortal soul, intelligence and free will, the human person is ordered to God and called in soul and in body to eternal beatitude.’ (352) That’s a bridge between humanity and divinity.

Christ who is divine deigned to become human; isn’t it only fitting that we who are human should strive towards the divine? Our fallen condition makes that aspiration seem beyond us. That’s a cross that we have to carry, but we have also to persevere, trusting that the final victory will be ours. In the words of the popular hymn ‘Old Rugged Cross’: ‘I'll cherish the old rugged cross / Till my trophies at last I lay down / I will cling to the old rugged cross / And exchange it some day for a crown.’ That’s when we will have fulfilled our vocation and mission as Christians.

In our pilgrim journey, we are often assailed by doubt. ‘How am I to know that I shall possess [this land]?’ asked Abram. Trials and temptations were his cup of woe, as they are ours today; but he remained faithful to God, and we should do likewise. After all, God extends His hand to us all the time; we should gauge his love and say, ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation.’ A wonderful antidote to all temptations, this psalm should forever be on our lips.

Franciscan Church of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, Israel

In the second reading, St Paul declares that for many ‘their God is their stomach; their glory is in their shame.' Sounds so contemporary! Indeed, aren’t we anxious about sowing, reaping and gathering into barns? If we think it natural to be ‘occupied with earthly things’, how much more should we be occupied with our supernatural destiny! Being made in the image and likeness of God ‘our citizenship is in Heaven, and from it, we also await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.’ If anyone else claims to speak words of salvation, be sure their ‘fruits [are] like honey to the throat / But poison in the blood.’ We can’t really stomach them, for we are made for God.

Jesus came into the world with the Good News of Salvation. But alas, the people of Israel were deaf to His message and blind to His miracles. On Mount Tabor, disciples Peter, John and James heard Jesus talking in glory to Moses and Elijah. Jesus’ imminent departure from this world was at the top of the agenda, but at the top of Peter’s mind was just the pleasure of being there on the Mount. When a cloud overshadowed the trio, and they were afraid, the Father’s voice spoke these ineffable words: ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to Him!’

The Transfiguration is a major feast in the Catholic Church; is it the same in our hearts? St Thomas Aquinas considered it to be one of the greatest miracles in that it complemented baptism and showed the perfection of life in Heaven. St Pope John Paul II introduced it as a ‘luminous mystery’ in the Rosary. But does the miracle transfigure us – turn us into something more beautiful and elevated?

On that Mount, Jesus became the visible bridge between God and man; do we act as bridges or as walls in our society? God the Father clearly indicated that His Son’s mission is higher than that of Moses and of Elijah. How far have we taken this message to the people around us?

That God appeared in person and spoke live is proof that ours is not a God of the dead but of the living: Moses and Elijah, who died centuries ago, are seen in the presence of God. It is a vindication of the Eternal Life promised to all who die in the faith. What an awesome God we serve. ‘Now more than ever seems it rich to die’!

God's Grace: go get it this Lent!

The secular world has given Lent a bad name by making it look like a season of deprivation. It has artfully concealed the fact that deprivation is a thing of its own making, the outcome of a sinful existence. Isn’t sin rampant and yet seemingly non-existent? In the modern world shattered by sin, alas, the absence of God’s grace is its greatest deprivation.

Against that sordid background, how soothing a balm is the liturgical season of Lent! We are invited to return to God, to walk in His path, and to savour His mercy and love. We ought to seize these forty days and renew our faith in the God who saves. We can never forget that the Father sent his Son to restore His covenant with the world; and that relationship is still alive. Lent is therefore a time of great hope, joy and thanksgiving.

The first reading on this first Sunday of Lent (Year C) is taken from Deuteronomy (26: 4-10), the fifth book of the Old Testament. The book comprises Moses’ sermons to the Chosen People as they stood on the threshold of the Promised Land, after a long exile in Egypt. These addresses recall Israel’s past and assert the identity of the Israelites; they also recap the laws that Moses had conveyed at Mount Sinai, stressing that their observance was essential to the people’s wellbeing.

In today’s excerpt we see that Moses calls the Israelites to offer their first produce to the Lord of Heaven and Earth to whom everything belongs. How deeply pertinent to our day and age! We too ought to offer the best of ourselves to God. Such acts of praise and thanksgiving would be perfect antidotes to modern man’s tendency to pose as all-knowing and all-powerful. It’s time we reset our priorities and put God first in our lives.

In the second reading, St Paul (Rom 10: 8-13) echoes those thoughts. The Son of God is the Saviour of the World. And, clearly, ‘if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.’ Thus, Christian faith is about trusting in God’s omnipresence, omniscience and omnipotence; it is about adhering to the Risen Christ. He invites everyone; ‘the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon Him.’ So, let every knee bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.

The Gospel (Lk 4: 1-13) shows how the evil one deplored the truth that Jesus is Lord. He thought it fit to test Him in the wilderness after Jesus had suffered deprivation of food, water, sleep, and human company. He was disappointed on seeing that the Son of Man had ample provision of the Spirit of God. But then, why did the Holy Spirit lead Jesus to be tempted at all! He did so that His victory might be even the greater. And behold His rejoinders: ‘Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve’‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’

Here in India, we would call that a ‘tight slap’. Yet, the temptation in the desert was not an isolated incident; it was very much the beginning of Jesus’ struggle with the prince of darkness, and it only ended on Calvary!... And be sure that the evil one is still around, testing you and me in the tangle of our lives. He tempts us with money and comforts, power and influence; it is almost as if the world is in his clutches. He brazens it out in ways unknown to us naïve children of the light! Not even our baptism in Christ protects us from his icy fingers; the first sacrament is rather the start of a hard journey that tests our faithfulness. But why worry when He is there, ‘My refuge, my stronghold, my God in whom I trust’! (Ps 90: 1-2)

This Sunday of Lent let us acknowledge that the battle with forces of evil is an undeniable reality. (Our hearts go out to the people of Ukraine who have been countering the enemy with fortitude – Amen!) We must diligently put on the armour of God, be filled with the Holy Spirit and stand against the wiles of the devil. We have the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, which will empower us. For our part, we must renounce evil, sin and Satan – and embrace good, grace and God. Let’s go get it this Lent!

From Earth to Eternity

This Sunday’s readings[1], short but powerful, provide an apt runup to Lent that is three days away. While the first and third readings help us reflect on the nature of earthly life, the second puts the spotlight on our eternal destiny.

The Book of Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus, as it was frequently read in churches) captures some eternal truths. Written two centuries before Christ, by Jewish scribe Ben Sirach, it points to God as the fount of all knowledge. This is pertinent, particularly as we reel under foolish diktats that can trigger a world war. Can there be any doubt that ‘violence covers the mouth of the wicked’? (cf. Prov. 10:11) So, we must beware of those who craftily try and win friends and influence people; since sweet talk masks some people’s intentions, we must wait until they are unmasked by their actions. To know who and when and why, only in God we trust; He alone can discern the workings of the human heart.

For our part, could we examine the nature of our thoughts, words and deeds? If we cannot control our thoughts, let us at least keep guard on our tongues, and our actions will take care of themselves. And what of our relationships? Do we listen more than we speak, or do we pretend to teach what we ourselves need to learn! Our Lord has said, ‘No disciple is superior to the teacher; but when fully trained, every disciple will be like his teacher.’ When we pattern ourselves after the Master, rather than after a local celebrity or star, we grow in self-knowledge and will readily thank God night and day. The Psalm says, ‘It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praise to your name, O Most High; to proclaim your kindness at dawn and your faithfulness throughout the night.’

After all, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. It behoves us to proceed with humility, gentleness, and patience, and to accept each other with love. And whether trained or not, we are not to look down upon the other, or to try and remove a speck from another’s eye when our own is laden with a bar! We have to particularly mind our tongues; they are mightier than our hands when it comes to breaking a heart. ‘The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.’ So, let our thoughts, words and actions tell of our relationship with the Lord.

When we as followers of Christ avoid all wrongdoing, we don’t turn passive! On the contrary, we get to focus on our mighty vocation: to build God’s kingdom. Through baptism, we are called to be – like Jesus – priest, prophet and king: to bring others to God and God to others; to give voice to the voiceless, and to use our time and talent for the common good. That is a threefold call to holiness. Needless to say, after having fought the good fight, finished our course, and kept the faith, there will be laid up for us a crown of justice. (cf. Tim 4:8)

Which is why St Paul is not intimated by death: perishable beings turn imperishable, and mortals put on immortality, says he. His treatment of the theme is so engaging that many a play and novel, song and film have celebrated the verse ‘Death is swallowed up in victory / O Death, where is thy victory? / O Death, where is thy sting?’ Particularly striking is John Donne’s sonnet which, while personifying death, humorously yet profoundly argues against its power. And while the sixteenth-century English clergyman and metaphysical poet ends his devotional lyric with a strong prediction: ‘Death, thou shalt die!’; the Apostle of the Gentiles ends his letter with a warm assurance: Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.’ Interestingly, thoughts about that treasure which lies in Heaven can give our life on earth an exciting new direction.

[1] Sir 27:5-8; Ps 91:2-3,13-14,15; 1Cor 15:54-58; Lk 6:39-43