Preparing the Way of the Lord

Matthew 17:9a,10-13
Sir 48:1-4,9-11 / Psa 80

You are destined, it is written, in time to come to put an end to wrath before the day of the LORD, to turn back the hearts of fathers toward their children…
(Sirach 48:10)

He has come “to restore all things,”
Jesus, our Savior, King of kings.
Make straight our ways, repent from sins,
Or we’ll never recognize Him.

As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” Then the disciples asked Him, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He said in reply, “Elijah will indeed come and restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him but did to him whatever they pleased. So also will the Son of Man suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that He was speaking to them of John the Baptist. (Matthew 17: 9a, 10-13)

Reflection

St. John the Baptist was the last herald of God before the Messiah finally appeared. Elijah was the first of the great prophets of the Old Testament who singlehandedly faced 450 prophets of Baal and Asherah in Mt. Carmel to show the people of Israel the folly of following the false gods of King Ahab and Jezebel (1 Kings, 18:19-40). Elijah was taken up alive by a flaming chariot into heaven (2 Kings 2:11). The Jews believed that he would return to herald the coming of the Messiah, as their prophet Malachi predicted: “I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me” (Mal.3:1), and “Lo, I will send you Elijah the prophet, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and terrible day, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children…” (Mal.3:23).

Elijah had indeed returned—in the person of St. John, but only figuratively speaking, or only in spirit. As the angel Gabriel told Zechariah, his father about him: “He will be great in the sight of the Lord… he will go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers towards their children…” (Lk.1:15,17).

What is important to note is that St. John the Baptist still plays an important role in this season of Advent. He was commissioned by God since his conception to prepare the people for their redemption. Every Advent he reminds us: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” When our Lord said, “So also will the Son of Man suffer at their hands,” He also meant that He suffers whenever we fall into grievous sin. Let us not forget that Jesus had already done everything that any man or God could give to redeem us. Sin is really a great insult to God because the sinner takes for granted Christ’s great sacrifice and death and his boundless love.

Repentance cleans us of our sins and makes us whole again so that we can recognize the importance of Advent in our lives. Our God is a God of compassion, and forgives us for not having prepared ourselves well to “recognize Him” in the faces of the hungry and the needy — perhaps too preoccupied with decorating our Christmas tree, hanging yuletide decors in the house, and going to the malls for the gifts of our godchildren. This is not the only way to prepare for His coming. No wonder the closing song in our daily masses of Advent ends with the words, “Prepare, repent, for the Lord is near.”

As we prepare ourselves for Your Son’s coming, Lord God, inspire us to be also involved in charitable acts, as much as in making commitments for the coming new year. As this is the time of the year when we start making our “New Year’s Resolutions”, may we resolve above everything to follow Jesus faithfully. Amen.

His Ways Are Way Above Ours

Matthew 11: 16-19
Is 48:17-19 / Psa 1:1-4,6

Wisdom is vindicated by her works.
(Matthew 11:19)

Who judges by appearances
Can’t see the fruits the wise discern;
Work to resolve our differences,
And God’s wisdom the prize we’ll earn.

(Jesus said), “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplace, and calling out to others: ‘We played the pipe for you, but you did not dance; we sang a dirge, but you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is vindicated by her works.” (Matthew 11:16-19)

Reflection

The Pharisees and the Jews were always quick to find fault with Jesus. That was because they regarded with disdain what did not conform to their antiquated ways of thinking. Most of the time, people do not appreciate the wisdom of an action, or God’s hand behind an event even when the positive consequences are already so obvious. They would rather not believe, even if time and again in biblical history, God had revealed through His prophets that faith is more powerful than knowledge.

Why are we always skeptical about things done outside our conventional ways of doing things? Jesus exhorts us to be creative, to get out of our comfort zones, to be bold and look beyond our normal routine, be more dynamic in our outlook in life.

People who are creative and willing to face challenges everyday live longer and fuller lives than those who prefer to remain in the “safe side” of life. The latter eventually become lethargic or bored with their static lifestyle and fall victim to depression, stroke, cancer, alzheimer’s, or other maladies of the inactive.

Some years back, some of us, “Associates of the Missionaries of Charity”— were asked to help the Sisters distribute foodstuffs to the poor residents in Samal Island. It was impressive the way the Sisters were able to methodically draw out the poorest to be served. They simply went from house to house days before, distributing claim stubs to selected beneficiaries. About four hundred indigent people filled their parish church that morning to hear Mass before the gift-giving. After the Mass, the numbers were called, and the people queued up to receive the donations of mercy. It was an enlightening experience to help the sisters distribute the truckload of foodstuffs (rice, noodles, plastic waterpails, soap, and snacks that were just enough to satisfy the number of poor people who attended. We were grateful to the Missionaries of Charity for sharing with us this opportunity of making the season of Christmas a very meaningful one for these poor people. Christmas is truly a season of giving for the poor. We came to understand what Advent is all about.

Thank You, Father God, for increasing our faith through the charitable works of Your holy servants. Now we have come to understand Your ways better. Amen.

Taking the Kingdom by Force

Matthew 11:11-15
Is 41: 13-20/ Ps 145:1,9-13

… the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence are taking it by force.
(Matthew 11:12)

Our voices shall not be silenced,
For justice and truth we shall stand;
Peace must overcome violence,
And God’s love will reign in our land.

Jesus said: “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist; and yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence are taking it by force. All the prophets and the law prophesied until John; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, whose coming was predicted. Let anyone who has ears to hear listen.” (Matthew 11:11-15)

Reflection

Jesus conferred on St. John the Baptist the honor of being the greatest because he was the last prophet of the Old Testament whom the prophets predicted would prepare the way of the Lord. He was also the first herald in the New Testament to give witness to the anointed Lamb of God. He was in fact the first martyr of the violence that Jesus was talking about. But what did our Lord mean when He said the least in the kingdom of heaven was greater than St. John the Baptist? Jesus was simply stressing the point that the kingdom of heaven is impregnable to all the evil and violence that are trying to take it by force. If King Herod, the greatest tyrant in Israel at that time, was unable to break the spirit and principles of St. John the Baptist, who was the least among God’s soldiers, how could any force on earth or hell ever hope to conquer the kingdom of heaven?

As Jesus had predicted, a long line of evil empires throughout history, wielding their might and power, would attempt, but fail to subdue or suppress the kingdom of God here on earth. Ironically, it would be the seekers of peace, the vanguards of truth and justice, with their principle of active non-violence, who would in the end prevail. God became man in our Lord Jesus Christ as the greatest personification of that ideal, and He commissioned His cousin, St. John to presage it. The history of mankind is also enriched by the lives of many advocates who successfully followed the way of the cross. St. Thomas More, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jose Rizal, Mandela of South Africa are just some of the more notable heroes of peace and non-violence.

One not so noted, but whose feast our Church celebrates today is St. Lucy. Born in the third century, her life personified what our Lord prophesied as “the kingdom of heaven suffering violence, and men of violence taking it by force.” Known as a virgin who dedicated her entire wealth to the poor, she was one of the earliest martyrs who achieved a widespread following before the 5th century. She is the patron saint of virgins and the blind. Various traditions associatied her name with light, and she came to be thought of as the patron of sight and was depicted by medieval artists carrying a dish containing her eyes. Actually, she was one of the early Christians persecuted during the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian.

Lord God, You gave us models like St. John the Baptist and St. Lucy to counter the myth that the power to change the world belongs to the mighty. Thank You for showing us that it is to the meek and the gentle, the persecuted, the humble of heart, and the peacemakers that Your kingdom truly belongs. Amen.

The Yoke of Christ’s Love

Matthew 11: 28-30
Is 40:25-31/Ps 103:1-4,8,10

Take my yoke upon you for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
(Matthew 11:30)

A task always turns out better
When not done for profit alone;
Life’s burdens will become lighter
When we help others with their own.

Jesus knew the yoke that the religious leaders and teachers of the Judaic law had been imposing on the Jewish nation. He rebuked them, saying, “Woe to you, scholars of the law! You impose on people burdens hard to carry, but you yourself do not lift one finger to help them” (Luke 11:46). In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus invites the Jews to free themselves from the oppression of old Jewish traditions, and take upon themselves the New Covenant of His love and the Good News of salvation. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Mt.11:28-30)

Reflection

The burden of leading an outreach fell on the shoulders of a young couple who had never before handled such a challenging responsibility, and who were just recovering from a trial by fire, literally. Their merchandising store and house had burned down, and they were just starting again with the insurance money. They had tentatively accepted the offer from the head of the chapter that was forming their outreach, after the first head couple begged off from extending their 3-year term. And yet in their apprehension, one could detect their enthusiasm and willingness to serve the Lord in this newfound brotherhood. They had discovered Christ’s love here, and this made the burden of leadership easier to carry.

Most people refuse to take on the yoke of leadership because it is an additional burden to their already loaded schedules. It is a rare breed of individuals who happily take on the responsibilities of servanthood in our community unfazed by the challenge, time, effort and resources they entail. And the only reason they accept the position is because it is for the Lord, and they do it for love. These are the people who are happiest in our brotherhood.

Service is not work, nor is it an obligation. It is freely given, and it is always easy and light. That’s because we give service out of love – for others, and especially for the Lord. There are many civic clubs and humanitarian organizations offering opportunities for serving others, like the Red Cross and Human Life International. But they all serve to alleviate physical suffering, and are at best only for this lifetime. It is different when the job that we put in is not merely for temporal benefits, but for eternal gain, i.e., for the conversion of an unbeliever or the repentance of a sinner. Being involved in such a transformation is a priceless profit for our toils. Serving the Lord by winning a soul is such a source of joy and inspiration that one would always want to do it all over again. Maybe that’s the reason why I get up at 4 o’clock every morning to compose and send you the day’s Gospel reflection. Except for today. I woke up late (my wrist watch alarm did not wake me), and had to rush to market to buy the ingredients for a “kinilaw” I promised my high school batchmates I would bring for our Christmas party tonight. So this reflection is late.

They that hope in the Lord will renew their strength, they will soar as with eagle’s wings; they will run and not grow weary, walk and not grow faint. (Isaiah 40:31) We thank You, Father God, for making us strong for the work ahead. Amen.

To Seek the Lost

Matthew 18:12-14
Is 40: 1-11/ Psa 96:1-3,10-13

In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost.
(Matthew 18:14)

Be God’s instrument of conversion,
Bring a lost sheep back to His fold;
As Jesus showed in His mission,
In this task everyone is called.

(Jesus asked His disciples): “What is your opinion? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills and go in search of the stray? And if he finds it, he rejoices more over it than over the ninety-nine that did not stray. In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost.” (Mt. 18:12-14)

Reflection

One of the principles embodied in the mission of our renewal community is to “take responsible care for all entrusted to us.” As followers of Christ, we all must assume the vital role of seeking at least one “lost soul” (“lost” in the sense that he or she has not yet found the real purpose of his/her earthly existence), and helping that person be transformed by being led to a deeper relationship with our Lord, Jesus Christ.

As we meditate on the life of Jesus in the Gospel passages of the bible, we can see His passion in seeking the lost, bringing them to repentance, and making their lives fruitful in the work of His mission. Aside from the twelve apostles, He delegated His mission to 72 disciples whom He sent out in pairs to different villages and towns. The lives of Matthew the tax collector, and Zacchaeus, an even richer tax collector, Mary Magdalene, once possessed by demons, Nicodemus, a Pharisee, and even Saul, the once great persecutor of the early church, were transformed when they encountered Jesus in their lives. Many sinners have become saints when they experienced this divine appointment with their Savior.

Our Lord tells us in today’s Gospel that God is a loving Father Who seeks us out when we go astray, and rejoices when we repent of our sins and are converted again. “There is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Lk.15:7). Our God wants us to follow the example of His Son – to seek out our lost brothers and sisters too, as Jesus has shown us, and bring them back to His fold. If only to show our appreciation for His call and our own conversion, we can do no less.

Of course there is the danger that we too might get lost (fall into sin), as we venture into the company of sinners. Or at the very least, suffer ridicule for our efforts. But our Lord’s reassuring words give us boldness of spirit: “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven” (Mt.5:11-12).

We are all like mindless sheep who lose their way sooner or later. But God’s grace and mercy bring us back to Himself. He is so wise, loving and forgiving that He will provide a way for our salvation, because He knows our weaknesses, predisposed as our human nature is to waywardness. There is no hopeless sinner, as long as we give ourselves a chance to hear the voice of the Shepherd calling us back to Him. Only the “black sheep” who runs away from God is lost forever.

Keep us in the right paths, dear God, for the road of life is full of treachery and deceit. And should we lose our way, let Your Word be the voice in the wilderness to guide us back to the way of our Lord Jesus, Who had sacrificed so much for our redemption. Amen.

Penitence and Healing

Luke 5: 17-26
Is 35:1-10 / Ps 85:9-14

Which is easier, to say ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk?’
(Luke 5:23)

Be forgiven to be purified,
Let your spirit first be made clean;
Pleas for healing may be denied
If we are paralyzed by sin.

One day Jesus was teaching, and Pharisees and scribes of the law were sitting there. They had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and even from Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal the sick. Some men came carrying a paralyzed man on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus. When Jesus saw their faith, He said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” The Pharisees and the scribes began thinking to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, “Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God. Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, “What wonderful things we have seen today!” (Luke 5:17-26)

Reflection

Our Lord teaches us in this Gospel that the healing of the spirit must always precede the healing of the body. Why? Because the spirit is more important than the body, and healing can only come when the sick person believes he or she will be healed. Genuine belief springs from a heart of faith, and faith is fortified and made whole only when a person is forgiven of all his sins. That is why there are cases of dying persons fully recovering after receiving the Sacrament of Penance.

Many years ago, I joined our chapter’s healing ministry led by our former chapter head. Every time we held prayers for healing of the sick, the prayers of penitence and supplications for God’s forgiveness always took precedence after we invoked the Holy Spirit to cast out any evil spirits. Our leader explained to the sick person that prayers for penitence were vital to be able to receive forgiveness for sins.

If we find it difficult to pray, it is because we have committed a sin, which has become an obstacle to true communion with God. Sometimes we are not even aware that our spirit is still burdened by a forgotten mortal sin blocking the flow of God’s grace. Or perhaps we find it difficult to ask for forgiveness because we ourselves have not forgiven another person who has wronged us. God forgives the debts of those who have also forgiven their debtors. This too is the essence of the Holy Eucharist, the communion of all souls with God. We can never be one with Him through our Lord Jesus Christ unless we are in unity with all of God’s children in total forgiveness.

Forgive us our sins, Lord, and grant us Your grace of forgiveness, for it is in making peace with all souls that we are reunited with You, and are made whole again. Amen.