Fasting for Jesus

Matthew 9: 14-15
Is 58: 1-9a/ Ps 51: 3-4. 5-6ab. 18-19

Can the wedding guests mourn while the bridegroom is with them?
(Matthew 9:15)

No one fasts on a wedding feast,
Or abstain in a celebration;
But during Lent the parties cease,
For fasting and mortification.

The disciples of John came to Jesus, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast? And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn while the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then they will fast” (Mt.9:14-15).

Reflection

The answer of Jesus in this Gospel passage of Matthew has often been cited by some as a convenient excuse to ignore fasting, which is integral to our Christian Lenten tradition. In fact, our Lord was not disparaging a Jewish custom of that time, when fasting was associated with mourning, or praying to God for a need. There was no need for it at that time, because the Messiah was in their midst. It was like the coming of a bridegroom to a wedding feast. It simply was not the proper occasion to fast. The absence of fasting was due to the presence of the Redeemer, and the celebration of the recent deliverance of a new apostle, Matthew.

During this Lenten season, fasting is practiced as a form of self-denial. Together with abstinence, this discipline of conquering the desire to eat develops our will power to resist the lures that the devil employs to entrap us. But fasting should not be an end in itself. God does not encourage fasting solely for discipline or self-denial reasons. It is not a Biblical reason for fasting. God has a higher purpose in mind. The sacrifice involved in fasting is for the purpose of “afflicting one’s soul.” It is not merely inflicting one’s body with hunger, but conditioning one’s spirit to turn in prayer more intimately to the Provider of all things. Fasting must always occur with prayer. “You can pray without fasting, but you cannot fast without praying.” The deliberate abstention from food happens for a spiritual reason: to communicate with the Father on a higher plane. God said, “When you seek me with all your heart, you will find me” (Jer. 29:13,14). When we set aside the cravings of the body to concentrate on praying, we are seeking God with all our heart. Without sustenance, we weaken ourselves before the Lord in order to depend on His strength. To fast therefore is “to humble oneself before the Lord” (Ps.35:13)

In this fundamental Biblical practice, let us be one with Christ Who humbled Himself for our salvation. Especially for those of us who are overweight, this is the best time to ask our Lord to give us the willpower to restrain our appetites – not only to lose weight, but to gain a deeper understanding of His cross.

The season of Lent is the right time to fast. It is the time of year when we feel an emptiness, a longing for God’s presence, perhaps due to the painful realization of our sinful nature. We fast because we grieve for our sins. It is a form of “taking up the cross” to follow Jesus. It is not merely “doing without”, but “doing something about” – the purpose of which is to prepare for an important event. That event is Easter, the return of Jesus our Lord, and His victory over death and sin. Fasting then is preparing for a coming feast! It is the same way that our Church urges us to refrain from eating food at least one hour before receiving our Lord in Holy Communion. Jesus fasted for forty days to prepare Himself for His ministry. The season of Lent is forty days, from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday. Our Lord requests us to “keep Him company” during this short period of time, to focus on His love and purpose in our life, and not be distracted by things of this world. It’s a small request. Let’s give our share to show our gratitude and appreciation.

Help us, Lord God, to prepare our souls for the passion and death of our Savior Jesus Christ, that we may be worthy to celebrate with Him in His glorious return. Amen.

The Conditions of Discipleship

Luke 9: 22-25
Dt 30: 15-20/ Ps 1:1- 4, 6

What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?
(Luke 9: 25)

Have no fear for problems or pain,
Just hope for the blessings life will bring.
Behind the trials, there’s a gain,
God has a purpose for everything.

Jesus said to His disciples, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” Then He said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world, yet lose or forfeit his very self? (Luke 9:22-25)

Reflection

Jesus told the multitudes who were following Him that if they wanted to be His disciples, they must deny themselves and take up their cross daily… “for whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” (Lk.9:24) Thus He made it clear that self-denial is the determining factor of a true Christian faith. Unless we are willing to accept our trials and problems with full trust and faith in God, we can never hope to claim membership in His Mystical Body, nor an inheritance in His heavenly kingdom.

For those among us who are blessed with material comforts and financial stability, the language of the cross can be a stark contrast to the kind of lifestyle we have become accustomed to. Some might wonder, ‘What if I have no cross to carry?’ Then perhaps you might consider helping others carry their own crosses. Crosses in life can come in many forms. It can be group of beggars that you believe are always waiting to “ambush” you at the church entrance every Sunday. It can be a business associate who owes you a large amount of money, but cannot pay because his business is floundering. It can be having a flat tire on a rainy day amidst heavy traffic, or trying to help a friend in the same predicament. Or it can be suffering in silence while others are making worse an already bad situation. On a flight back home the other day, we were made to wait for seven hours at the airport, and the airline’s ground staff could not give a definite answer why we were being detained for so long. This was a true test of our patience and understanding, but many of the passengers were already losing their tempers, that the airline’s security had to be called to maintain order in the premises. Finally, the ground crew announced that the airline was compensating all passengers with free roundtrip tickets to any destination (good for six months) for the long delay in their flight. Peace was finally restored.

This season of Lent is a time to reflect on our personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Where do we stand in terms of our commitment to Him? Do we still belong to the vast numbers who profess to be Christians, and yet never try to practice sacrifice (like patience and forgiveness}, fasting, almsgiving, submission to the Father’s will and obedience to the decrees of His Church? All of these practices are fruits of self-denial, which is the answer to the apathy and worldliness now confronting secular Christians. Christ paid the price for our redemption. To reciprocate His love, the least we can do is submit to His discipleship, take up our crosses daily, and serve humbly as His servants.

It is to live for You, my Lord, and not for myself that I accept the cross You offer me. In bearing life’s hardships I hope to be Your disciple, joyful in this privilege. Amen.

The Rewards of Secret Deeds

Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-18
Jl 2:12-18 / Ps 51 / 2 Cor 5:20–6:2

…and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
(Matthew 6:4,6 & 18)

The righteousness of every act
Comes from the grace of God above;
In all good things we shall not lack,
As we share humbly in His love.

Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. When you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, to win the praise of men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And when you pray, do not pray like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, to be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-6,16-18)

Reflection

In today’s Gospel, Jesus mentions the word “secret” 6 times — perhaps to emphasize that no good deed done for the praise of men ever gained any spiritual benefit. This is the common pitfall for everyone who has a hidden agenda for recognition. Some say it is difficult to be humble because the desire for recognition is really just part of human nature. Just as we praise others for their good deeds or noble traits, we also want others to know what we see as commendable in ourselves. But it is the man who has grown in wisdom through God’s grace who does not seek the praise of others. Knowing that his good deeds are pleasing in the eyes of God is enough for him. The good that he does is the consequence of his gratitude to Divine Providence because of the blessings he has received. That is why our Lord admonishes us to hide all our good deeds, so that we may not fall into this weakness, this flaw in our human nature. Giving alms, fasting, praying, and abstinence are effective ways of atoning for sins, but only if done in secrecy.

Today’s Gospel passage comes at an opportune time: the season of Lent starts today. This is the time when our Church is calling upon the faithful to practice penitence, forgiveness, simplicity and restraint. The series of natural calamities that have been happening all over the world may be warning signs. I am not suggesting that the end may be near, but this is the time to examine our lives, and perhaps do some “housecleaning”. As we read in the first reading, “Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and He relents from sending calamity.” (Jl 2:12-13) Likewise, it may also be the tme to heed St. Paul’s warning in the second reading: “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God… Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2Cor.5:20,6:2). Don’t take your time, you may be running out of it.

LORD, You have searched me and known me. You know when I sit and when I stand; You understand my thoughts from far away. You observe my travels and my rest; You are aware of all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue, You know all about it, LORD. (Psa 139:1-4) Grant that everything I think, say and do are for Your eyes alone. Amen.

Commands and Traditions

Mark 7: 1-13
1 Kgs 8: 22-23. 27-30/ Ps 84

They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’
(Mark 7:7)

Not by following tradition
But by the renewal of my mind
Teach me, Lord, to make the distinction
So that Your Will I may always find.

The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of His disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?” He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” And He continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions. For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.” (Mark 7: 1-13)

Reflection

The Pharisees and scribes believed that submitting to the tradition of their elders in performing certain rituals and following man-made laws handed down through the generations set them apart as the “chosen people of God”. Jesus pointed out to them that their human rules and traditions had in fact only set them far apart from the real form of worship, which is adoring God from the heart, and loving others as the genuine manifestation of that adoration. Their man-made laws were as empty and lifeless as the chaff threshed from the grain.

Ever since the time of the prophet Isaiah, as Jesus mentioned, up to the present time, there has always been this tension between obedience to the laws of God and the long held tradition of following rites prescribed by religious authorities as the proper form of worship. For instance, in some religions (not accepted as Christian), certain foods are forbidden (such as pork, fish without scales, ect.), even though our Lord was clear on this: “It is not what enters one’s mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of his mouth that defiles him” (Mt.15:11) In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul admonished: “Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship” (Rom 12:1). He also said, “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind so that you may discern the will of God – what is good, pleasing and perfect” (Rom 12:2). The key word then is “discernment”, because not all traditions are erroneous, like our long held belief in the infallible doctrines of the Catholic Church. By the renewal of our minds, we can also be properly guided against “deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental powers of this world rather than on Christ” (Col.2:8). Scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit. Our knowledge will increase and our faith fortified if we are faithful in reading the Bible.

Guide us, Father, in observing all Your commandments as handed down to us through our Church and the Holy Scriptures. Grant us the wisdom to discern what is true and pleasing to You in all our forms of worship, and in all our dealings with our fellowmen. We humbly acknowledge our weaknesses, and seek Your help in Jesus’ Name. Amen.

Jesus, Our Shepherd

Mark 6: 30-34
1Kgs 3:4-13/ Ps 119: 9-14

When Jesus landed and saw the large crowd, He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.
(Mark 6:34)

Are you burdened with anxiety?
Afraid to face what lies ahead?
Bring your troubles to God’s Sanctuary,
To our Shepherd and Living Bread.

The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to Him all that they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, He said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw the large crowd, He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So He began teaching them many things. (Mark 6:30-34)

Reflection

Jesus may no longer be with us to teach us things that we need to understand, but we can still find God’s compassion and wisdom to guide us in the various books of the Bible. For example, Psalm 23 describes the kind of love that God has for His people: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside quiet waters, He refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the dark valley, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me” (Psa 23:1-4). These are some of the most comforting and reassuring words in the Bible written by King David which he wrote towards the end of his life.

These beautiful verses of King David we usually hear during funeral masses, evoking as they do an image of the departed soul passing through the dark valley of death unafraid as the loved one is assured of his passage to heaven. But King David must also have written this psalm as a prophecy about Jesus, the Good Shepherd, Who would always be a guiding light, hope and protection for all the flocks of the Father, especially during times of great anxiety and fear for what lies ahead. The turmoil now happening in Africa and the Middle East has had grave repercussions throughout the world, especially for our country, which has become so dependent on OFW remittances from that part of the globe. Global warming is another serious concern, as we witness the freak forces of nature wreaking havoc with floods, snowstorms and super typhoons all over the world. The war on terrorism and drug syndicates goes on unabated, and our own little country is not spared, as we also grapple with other forms of criminalities, some with complicity of our own police and military authorities. Graft and corruption, growing poverty, and the degradation of moral values, on top of financial and emotional problems can be so depressing that it is no wonder we see the rates of heart attacks, strokes, cancer, mental cases and suicides ever on the rise. Without the presence of the Good Shepherd in our lives, how do we hope to cope with all these problems? Here, Jesus simply tells us, “Come away by yourselves with Me to a deserted place and rest for awhile” (Mark 6:31). How sweet those words are to our troubled hearts. How practical and necessary it really is to take time out from the problems of life, and the hustle and bustle of the marketplace, so that we can commune with our loving Shepherd, in His sanctuary.

St. Paul reminds us, “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, persevere in prayer,” (Rom 12:12) three things that should drive away all our fears and anxieties. We should have nothing to worry about if only we look up to Jesus as our Shepherd. “I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me . . . and I will lay down my life for the sheep” (Jn.10:14,15) If He could lay down His life for us when He was still living on earth, why wouldn’t He take care of our temporal needs now that He is in heaven?

Grant us the grace, to know the importance of taking time out an hour a day, a day in a week, or a week-end in a year to give to You, Lord Jesus, so that we may find rest for our souls. Prepare us for that moment when we have to walk through the valley of darkness whether here or in the afterlife. Amen.

John the Baptist and Herod

Mark 6: 14-29
Sir 47: 2-11 / Psa 18

Some were saying, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”
(Mark 6:14)

Be careful with the oaths you make,
Or face the consequence to choose:
The promise that you cannot break,
Or reputation that you’ll lose!

Jesus’ name had become well known. Some were saying, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” Others said, “He is Elijah.” Still others claimed, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.” But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, the man I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!” For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him. Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.” And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?” She answered, “The head of John the Baptist.” At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to give me right the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. (Mark 6: 14-29)

Reflection

It is important to note that King Herod has a counterpart in the the Old Testament — King Ahab, during the time of Elijah the prophet (1 Kings 16:29-33). King Ahab did evil in the sight of the Lord more than any of his predecessors. Going against the will of God, he married Jezebel, daughter of a Sidonian king, and was swayed into worshipping her god, Baal. He built a temple for Baal and worshipped in his altar. The prophet Elijah was sent by God to condemn his apostasy. Many Jews in Jesus’ time believed that Elijah had returned as John the Baptist. Jesus Himself said, “And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come” (Mt. 11:14). After His transfiguration with Elijah and Moses, Jesus again said, “I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him but did to him whatever they pleased.” And the disciples understood that He was speaking to them about John the Baptist (Mt.17:12-13). Elijah was the greatest of God’s prophets in the Old Testament. He spoke up for the truth, and was tormented by King Ahab and his wife Jezebel for it. Similar to Elijah’s mission and predicament, St. John was also God’s foremost herald for truth and repentance, facing up to a similar tyrant (Herod) and his illegitimate wife (Herodias) because their illicit affair set a bad example to the people.

St. John the Baptist and Elijah stood for the truth, while the two kings, Herod and Ahab represented what was false and corrupt. In any age, men of power can turn into the biggest fools when it comes to the wiles of women. King Herod knew that John the Baptist was a holy man, and was even afraid of him. And yet because of his misplaced sense of values, he allowed a mere dancer to ruin his soul. Such was the curse of adultery that befell him. St. John lost his head, but gained eternal glory; Herod lost his soul, and gained eternal ridicule.

By the way, it is no different with a powerful politician in Davao city today who is aspiring for an even more powerful position of power. He is also fond of making oaths (and even swearing), and brags about his passion for women. With his boastfulness and immorality, what makes him think the majority of Catholic voters in this country will elect him to be our next president?

Dear God, may the lives of St. John and Elijah keep us constant in the virtues of standing up for the truth and being faithful to Your laws so that we may never fall into traps devised by the Herodiases and Jezebels of this world. Amen.