Monday, December 31, 2007

31 December
Seventh Day in the Octave of Christmas

Readings: 1 John 2:18-21; Psalm 96:1-2, 11-12, 13; John 1:1-18

There’s more than meets the eye…

I’m not much of a fan of the Transformers, but there is truth in the tagline popularized by the cartoon series. And it’s probably one of the invaluable lessons we learnt on our recent trip to the mountains. Three of us were sent to a place that had not been visited by any of our predecessors. This was virgin territory as far as Jesuits were concerned. Not even our superior was sure what to expect. We were only given the impression that it would be very remote and very rural, with few modern amenities and conveniences. Yet the scene that greeted us as we alighted from the bus was not unlike any sleepy provincial capital. There were banks and schools, jeepneys and tricycles. All of which moved one of us to exclaim, with thinly veiled relief, that things weren’t so bad. However, in the days that followed, that same person, who had passed that rather premature verdict, was to discover that there was more to the place than what we saw at the bus station. He was sent by the local bishop to minister in a remote parish where, as it turned out, there were no roads. He had to hike an average of three hours every day, through mountainous terrain.

There’s more than meets the eye…

Isn’t this also a key lesson that our readings are trying to teach us on this seventh day in the octave of Christmas? The gospel proclaims to us that the helpless and innocent baby seen lying in a manger is nothing less than the Eternal Word, who was with God, and was God, right from the beginning. And all things came to be through him… Unbelievable! Inconceivable! Isn’t this why we are taking the trouble to lengthen our celebrations of Christmas Day over eight calendar days: to allow time for the eyes of our hearts to see beyond appearances, to recognize the Eternal in the infant, the Omnipotent in the powerless?

And that’s not all. For we are told that the Word is also the Light. He comes to dispel the shadows, to pierce through appearances, even the semblance of religious devotion. Isn’t this what we find in the first reading? For a time, the antichrists mentioned there appeared to be part of the Christian community. They probably faithfully attended Mass every week. Perhaps they were even active members of some parish organizations. But there comes a point when the appearances are stripped away, when these people are shown to be deserters of the faith, when it becomes clear that none of them was of our number. And the decisive sign of their status as outsiders? Their unwillingness to accept the mind-blowing truth that God could, and would, actually become a man, that the Divine could actually be found in the human.

Isn’t this yet another reason why it is good for us to linger before the babe in the manger? Not only are we searching for God, but we are also allowing God to search us, to enlighten every nook and cranny of our hearts and lives, so that, as we prayed in the opening prayer today, our religion might indeed have its origin and perfect fulfillment in the birth of the Son of God.

There’s more than meets the eye… Are we ready to see it?

Thursday, December 06, 2007


Breaking the Word will have to take yet another break till after Christmas, as we'll be heading to the mountains for Christmas ministries. Blessings...

Thursday in the 1st Week of Advent
Building and Stripping

Readings: Isaiah 26:1-6; Psalm 118:1 and 8-9, 19-21, 25-27a; Matthew 7:21, 24-27

Trust in the Lord forever! For the Lord is an eternal Rock…

What is it like to immerse ourselves wholeheartedly into our Advent project of entering and remaining in the Father’s House, of doing the Father’s will? Jesus answers this question for us in the gospel today by using a metaphor that seems very easy for us to understand. It is the metaphor of construction. To do the Father’s will is to listen and to act upon Jesus’ words and so to become like the man who built his house solidly on rock. Sounds simple enough, especially to our modern ears, accustomed as we are to construction projects of all sorts. Are we not preoccupied, on a daily basis, not only with the building of skyscrapers and roads, but also with the construction of economies and careers, of personalities and intellects? And yet, as easy to grasp as the metaphor seems to be, it is also just as easy to misunderstand.

For we are used to the kind of construction that emphasizes accumulation. We store up sand and gravel. We acquire bank accounts and investment portfolios. We study for MBAs and put together impressive resumes… So it’s not surprising if many of us view the building of our spiritual life in much the same terms. We increase our knowledge of the Bible and the Catechism. We join more church groups and activities. We acquire more disciplines of prayer and devotion. All these are, of course, important and invaluable means to a healthier spiritual life. But isn’t it important to remember that they are still only means, and that they should not be allowed to hinder us from our end?

For the spiritual life has less to do with accumulating than it does with stripping. When Jesus tells us, in chapter seven of Matthew’s gospel, to listen and act upon his word, he is referring to the things he has been saying earlier, in chapters five and following. He is referring to the Sermon on the Mount. And we know how the Sermon begins: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven… Is it any coincidence then that the first reading speaks to us about trusting in the God who brings down the lofty city, allowing it to be trampled underfoot by the needy, by the footsteps of the poor? To enter the Father’s House, to do the Father’s will, to keep Jesus’ word, to set our houses on solid rock, involves submitting ourselves to a process of stripping, a process whereby we gradually learn to trust, above all else, in God the eternal Rock.

How are we being invited to submit ourselves more fully to the process today?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Wednesday in the 1st Week of Advent
The Stimulation of Sunshine

Readings: Isaiah 25:6-10a; Psalm 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6; Matthew 15:29-37

Although its atmosphere is quite distinct from the rigor of Lent, the season of Advent does still require a certain degree of commitment and sense of purpose from us if we are to experience its fruit. As we have been saying, this is a time to prepare diligently for the coming of the Lord, so that we might be led by him to enter and remain in our Father’s house. Yet, isn’t it true that we can often allow the season to quickly pass us by as yet another missed opportunity to experience God in a deeper, more intimate way? Perhaps what we need is to find and foster within ourselves the appropriate dispositions that can move us to action. I’m reminded of the following well-known fable of Aesop’s.

The Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveller coming down the road, and the Sun said: “I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveller to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger. You begin.” So the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveller. But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveller wrap his cloak round him, till at last the Wind had to give up in despair. Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveller, who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on. (Taken from here.)

Like the fable, our readings today invite us to meditate upon at least three attitudes, three rays of sunshine, that can warm up our hearts enough to move us to take off our cloaks of apathy and complacency and enter more seriously into the spirit of Advent.

The first disposition is implied in these words from the first reading: this is the Lord for whom we looked; let us rejoice and be glad that he has saved us! What moves the people to rejoice is their recognition of the coming of the One for whom they looked. Their deep yearning is indeed fulfilled, but only after they had first yearned, only after they had first looked. For what or whom are we looking or yearning this Advent?

Then, in the second reading, we find people glorifying God because they are moved with amazement at the mute speaking, the deformed made whole, the lame walking, and the blind able to see… What are the events around us that can move us with amazement in the same way this Advent?

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, we find the motivation of motivations. In the gospel, Jesus performs a miraculous feeding because his heart is moved with pity for the crowd, for they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat… And we might add that Jesus’ very presence and ministry is itself the expression of the very compassion of God for us. What people or situations do we see around us that can move our own hearts with compassion this Advent?

Today, how is Christ, the Eternal Sun, shining upon us, warming our hearts, stimulating us to action?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Tuesday in the 1st Week of Advent
Advent Advocate

Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17; Luke 10:21-24

Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace for ever…

As was the case yesterday, the response to our psalm for today also provides a useful focus to our reflection. For in a sense, Advent is all about time, about the coming of the Lord’s time. And, as we will recall from previous years, Advent is a curious time, when we find ourselves in between the two comings of the Lord: his first coming at his birth and his second coming at the end of time.

We eagerly watch for this coming because, as promised, it will be a time of justice and peace, a time when God will decide aright for the land’s afflicted and when there shall be no harm or ruin on all of God’s holy mountain. These promises sound particularly poignant this week when, here in this land in which I find myself, a group of farmers will be completing their foot-march of 1600 kilometres, from their province to the country’s capital in order to garner support for their bid to have their ancestral lands restored to them. Indeed, our celebration of Advent should remind us that we are all still waiting for a time when people will no longer have to go to such lengths to see justice done. And as we wait, do we not also find ourselves called to work in the cause of justice and peace?

But the in-between nature of Advent also means that waiting and working cannot be our only preoccupations. For the time of the Lord is also already upon us. Isn’t this the reason why, in the gospel, Jesus can joyfully offer a heartfelt prayer of praise and thanks to the Father for what the Father has already done? Although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike… If it is true that the time of the Lord, the time of justice and peace, has already arrived, then Advent must also be for us a time of revelation, recognition and rejoicing.

Even so, it’s necessary to acknowledge the challenge that we face. It is not easy to wait for something we need urgently, just as it is not easy to see and to recognize something that seems to remain hidden. For the first requires courage, and the second, wisdom. Isn’t this why our readings today suggest to us the need for a companion on our Advent journey? We don’t often hear about this companion except when Pentecost comes around. And yet, both our readings today speak about the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit in whom Jesus is anointed and under whose influence he rejoices. Isn’t it also only in the Spirit that we can receive the courage and wisdom we need to spend this season fruitfully?

If Jesus is the reason for the season, and the Father’s house its destination, then the Spirit must surely be our much-needed advocate, our companion on the way.

How might we better open ourselves to the Spirit’s influence today?

Monday, December 03, 2007

Monday in the 1st Week of Advent
Memorial of St. Francis Xavier, Priest
Our Christmas Destination

Readings: Isaiah 4:2-6; Psalm 122:1-2, 3-4b, 4cd-5, 6-7, 8-9; Matthew 8:5-11

December is here again. And, as always, our preparations for and celebration of Christmas will probably take us to many different places. We will be jostling elbow to elbow at the malls for those obligatory holiday purchases. We will be chatting with colleagues, friends and relatives at pleasant office-parties and homely get-togethers. Some of us will be vacationing in exotic tourist locations. And, in all likelihood, we will, at some point, also be praying solemnly before the crib and singing with gusto in church.

Yet, wherever we might find ourselves this December, already on this first Monday of Advent, our readings highlight for us the one place that we must all enter and in which we must all remain, the one location without which every other visit will be pointless. We find the clearest indication of where this is in the response to the psalm: let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord. Isn’t this the point of it all? Isn’t this the one reason why we so carefully yet joyously prepare for the coming of Christ? So that he might gather us all into his Father’s house?

But where exactly is this place? And how do we get there? Where, for us, is the Zion and Jerusalem referred to in the first reading? Where, in our own day, is the Kingdom of heaven that Jesus speaks of in the gospel? No doubt, Advent will involve each of us in pondering over and responding to these questions. And the centurion in today’s gospel offers us a useful model for how we can enter and remain in the Father’s house. For doesn’t Jesus number him among the many who will come from the east and the west…? What’s so special about him?

Clearly he stands out because of his faith in Jesus. But in what does this faith consist? What is it that moves him to do and say the things that so impress the Lord? Several aspects come to the fore. There is, first, his amazing assurance in who Jesus is and what he can do: only say the word and my servant will be healed… This is coupled with his own humble and realistic appraisal of his own standing in the sight of God: I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof… But his appreciation of the disparity between the Lord’s authority and his own unworthiness does not prevent him from seeking Jesus out. Is this not because his humility and faith are matched by his profound realization of the urgency of his need, and not just his own personal need, but also that of someone whom he loves? Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, suffering dreadfully…

If Jesus is truly the reason for the season, then the Father’s house is its true destination. And the centurion shows us how to get there.

Where will you be this Advent?

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Saturday in the 34th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Safety in Prayer

Readings: Daniel 7:15-27; Daniel 3:82, 83, 84, 85, 86, 87; Luke 21:34-36

I find it quite significant that as my companions and I move from one place of lodging to another we keep being reminded of the need for security. Take care of your belongings… Remember to lock your door... On this last day of the Church’s liturgical year, as our readings continue to focus our attention on the prospect of the end of time and how, as Christians, we should prepare ourselves to face the final visitation of the Son of Man, the concern is also with security of a sort. In particular, we are reminded to safeguard ourselves against two dangers.

The first is the one faced, in the first reading, by no less Godly a prophet than Daniel. Looking ahead into the mists of time, and finding himself face to face with an apparently terrifying future, Daniel confesses that he finds his spirit anguished… and… terrified by the visions of his mind. The second danger is that spoken of by Jesus in the gospel, when he warns his disciples to beware that your hearts do not become drowsy…

Anxious spirits and drowsy hearts, these are the twin and contrasting dangers that face us all. For, as Jesus reminds us, that day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth. On the one hand, there will be some among us who will be so obsessed and disturbed by the prospect of future terrors that we might even allow our faith and trust in God to be shaken. On the other hand, there will also be those of us – and we will probably be in the majority – who will be unperturbed. We will be too preoccupied with the anxieties of daily life to care about the one thing necessary. And we will be caught by surprise when the Lord comes knocking on the doors of our hearts.

To both these dangers, the readings offer the same safeguard. Troubled in spirit, Daniel prays, and the meaning of his visions are made known to him. Similarly, Jesus exhorts his disciples to fight the drowsiness of their hearts by remaining vigilant at all times and to pray that you may have the strength... to stand before the Son of Man… More solid than any locked door, and more reliable than any alarm system, we are each being invited to remain in constant contact with the One who alone can keep us safe from the tribulations that are imminent.

How safe are you?