Friday, September 21, 2012

OT XXV [B] Wis 2:12, 17-20; Jas 3:16--4:3; Mk 9:30-37

At the celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the
United Nations in 1983, the Secretary General, Javier Perez, rose from his seat to introduce Mother Teresa to an elite gathering of the representatives of all member countries of the U.N. He needed only one sentence for his introduction:  "I present to you the most powerful woman in the world!"
On March 3, 1976, conferring on Mother Teresa the highest honor of India’s Vishwa Bharati University, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, who was at that time  Prime Minister of India, said:  “I feel myself dwarfed when I stand before this holy and mighty woman who heroically showed the world how to practice Christian love in sacrificial and humble service.” For many years, the world watched, admired and honored this weak and elderly nun, always dressed in a blue bordered white sari, as the incarnation of humble and sacrificing Christian service.  She was the living proof of Jesus' words in today’s gospel that real greatness lies in serving others. Jesus teaches his apostles that child-like humility and loving, selfless service make one great in the eyes of God.

The lesson Jesus has been teaching by his example since the day of his birth, he now teaches with words.
And this lesson is a big one: the nature of true success. When Jesus and his apostles sit down to relax in Capernaum after a day of walking the hot, dusty roads of Galilee, he knows exactly what they have been talking about - success, glory, greatness. But the apostles are too embarrassed to admit it; they suspect that their interest in worldly success is too self-centered to be praiseworthy. But our Lord's response is  surprising. He doesn't tell them that they shouldn't desire to excel, to achieve, to do great things. He doesn't condemn that very normal impulse - because he knows that achieving things, making a difference in the world, is a basic need felt by every human heart. This is one of the purposes of our lives: being a sign of God's goodness by making a positive difference in the world. So Jesus doesn't scold them for wanting to do something great. Instead, he tells them what true greatness really is. The great task for every Christian isn't to achieve fame, fortune, popularity, power, and worldly success. Rather, it's the same task that Christ himself undertook: to serve others, to make others happy, to reach out to those who are weak and in need, like little children. Greatness in Christ's Kingdom is equated with humility, an attitude of the heart that puts the good of others ahead of one's own preferences: it's self-giving, not self-getting. He doesn't say to his apostles, "Don't strive to achieve great things," but he does point out where true, lasting, fulfilling greatness lies - in loving one's neighbor as Christ has loved them. Jesus is the Servant-Lord; we, his faithful disciples, are called to follow in those demanding footsteps. And at the last supper he demonstrated to them this teaching by washing the feet of his disciples.

We never become truly great, we never do our best work until we are "clothed with humility"; until, like our Lord and Savior, we are willing to live to serve others. 

Someone has said, "The true way to be humble is not to stoop until you are smaller than yourself, but to stand at your full height before some higher nature that will show you how small your greatness is." "Walk humbly with thy God." Here is where we learn true humility. Walking with God, seeing ourselves by the side of His greatness, we see how little we are. And seeing how little we are is the first step toward becoming what we can and ought to be.

 Benjamin Franklin, the early American statesman, made a list of character qualities that he wanted to develop in his own life. When he mastered one virtue, he went on to the next. He did pretty well, he said, until he got to humility. Every time he thought he was making significant progress, he would be so pleased with himself that he became proud. Humility is an
elusive virtue.

There is a story about a woman who had been trying for years to persuade her egotistical husband to change his ways. He was obsessed with being number one. He never stopped talking about being first in sales at the office. He proclaimed that he was first on the list for the next promotion. He had to be first in line to buy tickets for a game and also the first to hit the parking lot after the game.

One day this man's long-suffering wife watched with interest as he stepped on one of those fortune-telling scales. He dropped a coin in the slot and out came a little fortune-telling card that read: "You are a born leader, with superior intelligence, quick wit, and a charming manner. You have a magnetic personality and are attractive to the opposite sex."

"Read that," he said to his wife with a hint of gloating. She did, and then turned the card over and said: "It has your weight wrong too." 

A pastor who prepared a great message on humility.  But he was waiting for a bigger congregation to preach the sermon to! Another pastor was given an award for humility. A week later, the congregation took the award back because the pastor displayed it in his office!  Without humility we can never please God.
The Christian vocation is an apostolate of bearing witness to Christ through loving and humble service.  Christian history teaches us that whenever the members of Christ’s Church have forgotten or ignored this call to service, the Church has suffered. Jesus stands conventional wisdom on its head. The truly great person is a diakonos − a deacon − a servant − a person who spends his/her day taking loving care of other people. Jesus wants his apostles to substitute for their ambition to rule, thus becoming the first, the ambition to serve, thus becoming the last. We are all supposed to be serving in love, whatever our position or role in society, the family or the Church may be, because true greatness lies in being the loving servant or slave of all.

During the holy Mass let us pray for the true spirit of service, for an attitude of love for those around us.  We need to ask the Holy Spirit to help us to become truly great through loving, humble and selfless service. Mother Teresa puts it like this: “Be the living expression of God's kindness through humble service. Show kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile and kindness in your warm greeting.”

Saturday, September 15, 2012

O.T.XXIV [B] IS 50:4c-9a; JAMES 2:14-18; MARK 8:27-35

The story is told of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson on a camping trip. As they lay sleeping one night, Holmes woke Watson and said, "Watson, look up into the sky and tell me what you see." Watson said, "I see millions of stars." Holmes asked, "And what does that tell you?" Watson replied, "Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Theologically, it tells me that God is great and that we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, it tells me that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. And what does it tell you?" Holmes answered, "Someone stole our tent." Some people are great at speculative knowledge but when it comes to its implication for practical living they score zero. Such is Peter in today's gospel.

Scholars tell us that the passage we have for today's gospel is the central passage in Mark's Gospel. From the beginning of the Gospel up to this point has been a preparation for the revelation of the secret of Jesus' identity as the Messiah, in this passage the Messianic secret is revealed, and from here to the end of the Gospel deals with the fulfillment of Jesus' mission as the Messiah.

Jesus realized that if his disciples did not know who he really was, then his entire ministry, suffering and death would be useless. Hence, he decided to ask a question in two parts. 
The first question: “What is the public opinion of him?” Their answer was, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” John the Baptist was so great a figure that many Jews, and Herod their king, thought that John’s spirit had entered the body of Jesus. Elijah, the greatest of the prophets was believed to be the forerunner of the Messiah.  ["Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes"(Mal.4:5).] It was believed that, before the people went into exile, Jeremiah had taken the Ark of the Covenant and the altar of incense out of the Temple, and hidden them away in a lonely cave on Mount Nebo; before the coming of
the Messiah, he would return and produce them, and the glory of God would come to the people again (2Macc.2:1-12). 

This examination of the Apostles is done in two parts: a doctrinal-theological and a practical-existential part.
The first part focuses on the question: "Who do you say that I am?" (Mark 8:29a). Peter, spokesperson for the apostles gives the pointed and correct answer: "You are the Messiah". Christ is the Greek word for the Hebrew word Messiah. To say that Jesus was the Christ, the anointed one of God was to say that He was the Immanuel, the Salvation of God -- God who became Man to save sinners!  Peter emerges in flying colors at the end of the first part of the examination.

The second half of the examination has to do with the practical implications of the conclusion they reached in the first part. "Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again". At this point Peter disagrees vehemently with Jesus. Even though he scored 100% in the doctrinal part of the exam, he shows by his actions that, in fact, he knows nothing of the practical implications of what he had said. So Jesus gives him a thumbs down. "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things". The Rock who came out in flying colors in the doctrinal section of the exam ends up as the Satan in the practical section, which is really the determining section. (It is something like our driving test. Even if you score 100 percent in the theory part, if you make a mistake in the practical part you can really kill yourself on the road.) This is what the prosperity preachers like Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer and others, do too. No suffering. God doesn’t want you to suffer at all. They say: the suffering and death of Jesus make sense only for Jesus, not for his followers. They fail to see that Jesus even called his dear disciple “Satan” for refusing the suffering. Without Jesus’ suffering we would not have had the salvation. Without suffering our spiritual muscles won’t be strengthened. Those who go to gym, do it not because they have nothing else to do, but because they realize that in order to keep them fit and strong they have to do this unpleasant exercise.   
It is characteristic of great leaders to make demands upon their followers. When Winston Churchill became Prime Minister he told the British people that he had nothing to offer them but "blood, toil, tears, and sweat." The Italian freedom fighter Gerabaldi told his followers that he offered them only hunger and death.

These were demanding leaders, but Jesus was a thousand times more demanding then they were. Jesus said, "So, therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple." Possessions cannot stand between you and the Lord. Jesus went so far as to say, "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own mother and father, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters, he cannot be my disciple." Even something as noble as the love of family, as good and right as that is, cannot stand in the way of commitment to the Kingdom of God. Jesus comes to us as the Lord of History and makes demands: Take up you cross and follow me." Only the person who is dead to his own will can follow Christ." Christianity is pretty radical stuff, counter-cultural even. 

But then we need to remember another thing too. God does not want us to be passive sufferers. Jesus himself prayed in the garden, if this is your will, take this cup away from me. He himself went around the whole of Judea healing the sick and the suffering. So what should we take from this ? We shall not irrationally suffer. We shall not suffer injustice. If it is possible for us do whatever in our power to avoid such suffering. Suffer injustice only if it will bring greater good for people we love. This is why Jesus suffered on the cross. To save us and because he loves us. If I become terminally ill and there is no hope of recovery, but my life can only be kept alive by incurring a huge amount which would be a big burden for the rest of my family, will put them in huge debt, then I should choose not to put my family in trouble and choose to abstain from expensive treatment. At such situation I should accept the suffering as a God given opportunity to suffer for myself and others. We cannot know the secrets of all the suffering. Yesterday I was talking to one of our parishioners and he lost his wife to cancer two years ago, after 46 years of their married life. Now he finds it difficult to come to Church because he doesn’t know why God allowed that to happen. When a small child suffers from terminal illness, what does God get out of that ? We don’t know- all that is in the inscrutable plan of God. May be he uses one person’s suffering to convert another to God. He allowed his own son to suffer and die in order to save the humanity. Why can’t he use one child to save another of his child ? We don’t know. But one thing we know for sure from the scriptures that some sufferings are due to our own sins. But righteous persons like Job also suffered because that was to strengthen his spiritual muscles and also was a test of his faith. But in all circumstances we need to remember what St.Paul told us in Rom.8:28 “ I know that all things work together for good, for those who love God. Peter did not know when he made the profession of faith that either Jesus or he would have to suffer. But only gradually he came to accept the sufferings.
Let’s ask the Lord, that like Peter we may also assimilate the true meaning of the cross that not by eliminating the cross, but by embracing the cross as Jesus did that we experience the resurrection. 

Saturday, September 1, 2012

O.T.XXII [B] Dt 4:1-2, 6-8; Jas 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27;  Mk 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

William Barclay tells the story of an old Jewish rabbi in the Roman prison who was diagnosed with acute dehydration which would have led to his death.  The prison guards insisted that the rabbi was given his quota of drinking water.  So the prison doctor and the officer in charge instructed the guards to watch the rabbi and ascertain what he was doing with his ration of water.  They were shocked to find that the rabbi was using almost all his water for traditional ritual washing before prayer and meals.  Today’s gospel tells us how the tradition-addicted Pharisees started questioning Jesus when his disciples omitted the ritual washing of hands in public before a meal.

Today’s readings explain what true religion is. It is not simply a scrupulous, external observance of rules, laws, traditions and rituals. It is a loving, obedient relationship with God expressed in recognizing His presence in other human beings and rendering them loving and humble service.
Prayers, rituals, sacraments and religious practices in the Catholic Church are intended to help us to practice this true religion in our daily lives.

Why is religion so important? It is because it puts us in touch with a special revelation from God that we would not otherwise receive. The Jews believed that through their religion they could know the God who had freed them from slavery in Egypt and who had promised them life. God had given them the Law which instructed them how to remain free and not relapse into idolatry. They were proud that God had chosen them to show the rest of the world what a wonderful God they worshipped. “What great nation is there that has its gods as near as the Lord our God is to us whenever we call upon them’.
The Jews developed their purity laws as a way of guarding their faith, keeping certain boundaries so that that they were not just absorbed into the gentile world. Most religions develop traditions, which help them to interpret the basic commandments of their religion in the new situations which arise. There is always the danger that these religious traditions can gradually become more important than the basic commandments. Then religion becomes corrupt. The solution is not to get rid of religion but to purify it, so it plays its essential role of mediating God’s love and justice to us. And this is what Jesus is doing in today’s Gospel.
Jesus is not dismissing the externals of religion in favor of just an interior spiritual attitude. He is pointing to a danger which afflicts all religious people Jew and gentile, catholic and protestant. We can develop religious traditions, whether they are the meticulous details of eating regulations or the intricate instructions of liturgy, which take on a greater importance than the basic commandments of our religion.
Jesus describes true religion as serving God and all His children with a pure and holy heart.  God cares more about what happens on the inside of our lives than what happens on the outside: he wants our hearts. That's what he's trying to explain to the Pharisees, and to all his disciples, and to us. It is quite possible to appear perfectly Christian on the outside while being perfectly selfish on the inside. We can go to Mass regularly, avoid obviously lewd or sinful behavior in public, say prayers so that others will notice - we can do all those things exteriorly while constantly entertaining evil thoughts and self-centered desires in our hearts. That kind of divided life, which is called hypocrisy, can't last. As the old saying goes, unless we live according to what we believe, we will soon start believing in accordance with what we live. Or, as Jesus puts it elsewhere in the Gospels (cf. Matthew 6:21): where our hearts are, there our treasure is. True followers of Jesus Christ can never be satisfied with merely exterior piety; we can never consider ourselves superior to others just because our sins are less visible. That's what the Pharisees did, and it blinded them to God's love; in fact, it tragically turned them into enemies of God. True religion has exterior manifestations, certainly, but they are meant to flow from and give expression to the experience of the heart. The heart is the place where we decide for or against our conscience, for or against God's will. Our friendship with Christ, and the purpose, strength, and vigor that flows out of that friendship, depend on our inner allegiance to him. Jesus doesn't care what we look like to others; he cares about who we really are. And so, that's what we should care about too.

When we come to worship we are invited by Jesus to examine our own religious practices. Do we come to Sunday liturgy because we want to get something or to give something? The reason we should come to Sunday Mass is so that we can share our faith, enter into the celebration with spirit, with life, with joy, with enthusiasm. Giving of oneself in the celebration enriches oneself and others in the community. That could happen if we came to our Sunday celebration not out of habit, not out of conformity, and not out of obeying a law, but because we want to come and praise and thank God with all the spirit that we can bring forth. That could happen if we came to every Sunday liturgy with the conviction that this is a time when we pour forth our love for God and our love for one another. Then we enrich ourselves and enrich one another. If we had this attitude, every Sunday celebration would be filled with a joyous community of people praising God and enriching one another.
Let’s also not forget the words of St.James: Be doers of the Word and not just hearers, lest you deceive yourselves. In the sight of God, pure and blameless religion lies in helping the orphans and widows in their need and keeping oneself from the world's corruption.

Let us avoid the tendency to become cafeteria Christians by choosing certain commandments and Church laws to follow, and ignoring the others as we do in a cafeteria or buffet restaurant. Let’s ask God for the grace to worship Him in Spirit and truth.