Saturday, March 29, 2014

IV- Lent I Sam 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13; Eph 5:8-14; Jn 9:1-41

Jesus’ giving of sight to a blind man, reported in today’s Gospel, teaches us the necessity of opening the eyes of the mind by faith and warns us that   those who pretend to  see the truth are often blind, while those who acknowledge their blindness are given clear vision. In this episode, the most unlikely person, namely the blind man, receives the light of faith in Jesus, while the religion-oriented, law-educated Pharisees remain spiritually blind.  "There are none so blind, as those who will not see."  To live as a Christian is to see, to have clear vision about God, about ourselves and about others.
By describing the anointing of David as the second king of Israel, the book of Samuel, illustrates how blind we are in our judgments and how much we need God’s help. Samuel was given the warning: "Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart."  

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul, says that Baptism is an “awakening and living in the light”— Christ:  "Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light." Paul reminds Christians of their new responsibility as children of light: “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.  Live as children of the light, for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth.”
From earliest times, today's Gospel story has been associated with Baptism. Just as the blind man went down into the waters of Siloam and came up whole, so also believers who are immersed in the waters of Baptism come up spiritually whole, totally healed of the spiritual blindness with which all of us are born. Raymond Brown comments that in the lectionaries and liturgical books of the early Church, there developed the practice of three examinations before one's Baptism. These correspond to the three interrogations of the man born blind. When the catechumens had passed their examinations and were judged worthy of Baptism, the Gospel book was solemnly opened and the ninth chapter of John was read, with the confession of the blind man, "I do believe, Lord," serving as the climax of the service. Paintings on the walls of the catacombs of Rome portray Jesus healing the man born blind as a symbol of Holy Baptism. The early Christians looked at their Baptism as leaving behind blindness and darkness and stepping into the glorious light of God.
A great part of the way this event is told us by St John is to show us the contrast between the faith of the man, and the blindness of the Pharisees. They refuse to believe the man. They refuse to believe the evidence before them. They are blind to the works of God, even though the Jewish Scriptures ought to have prepared them for the coming of the Messiah, who would open the eyes of the blind.
 “The blind man’s progress in spiritual sight is paralleled by the opponents’ descent into spiritual blindness.” Here is a contrast between those who know they are blind and those who claim to see. According to these blind Pharisees, Jesus, by healing the blind man doubly broke the Sabbath law, which forbade works of healing, and also kneading which was involved in making clay of spittle and dust. So they concluded, "The man who did this cannot be from God, because he does not obey the Sabbath law."
The stubborn pride and prejudice of the Pharisees prevented them from seeing the hand of God in it. This made them incapable of recognizing a miracle. But the cured man insisted that Jesus, his healer, must be from God. The blind man was asked: "Who healed you?" First he answered, “A prophet healed me.” Then he answered, “The Son of Man healed me.” Finally, when he realized who Jesus was, he fell down on his knees and worshiped him. As a result, he was excommunicated. When we fully believe in Jesus as the Son of God, the world will hate us or excommunicate us as Jesus already foretold.
Although the Pharisees have long since disappeared from history, there are still many among us who are blinded by the same pride and prejudice. Spiritual blindness is very common in modern times. Perhaps, the most awful disease in the world today is spiritual blindness. Such blindness refuses to see the truths of God's revelation.  I saw the movie “God is not dead” this week with some of the people sitting here. A professor like the blind Pharisees in this gospel, starts off his class taking a written adherence from the students to the preposition that God is dead. But one student refuses to adhere to that and the whole movie is trying to prove the existence of God by the student and the professor, even against his own conviction, trying to refute that God exists, finally contradicting himself. Till just before the end of the movie he remains blind like the Pharisees in the gospel today, refusing to see the light. That is the sin against the Holy Spirit. Jesus said there is no forgiveness for such deliberate stubborn spiritual blindness.   
We need to allow Jesus to heal our spiritual blindness.  We all have blind-spots -- in our marriages, our parenting, our work habits, and our personalities.  We often wish   to remain in the dark, preferring darkness to light.  It is even possible for the religious people in our day to be like the Pharisees:   religious in worship, in frequenting the Sacraments, in prayer-life, in tithing, and in knowledge of the Bible – but blind to the poverty, injustice and pain around them.  Let us remember, however, that Jesus wants to heal our blind-spots.  We need to ask him to remove from us the root causes of our blindness, namely, self-centeredness, greed, anger, hatred, prejudice, jealousy, addiction to evil habits and hardness of heart.

Lent is a good time to take stock of how we are affected by this blindness, to see just how blind we have been to Jesus and His call to discipleship, and to realize how often we have preferred to stay blind. Let’s ask the holy Spirit to take control of us and help us leave the stupid stubbornness we sometimes hold on to.

Friday, March 14, 2014

II- Lent:Gen 12:1-4a;II Tim 1:8b-10; Mt 17:1-9 

This Gospel account shares the scene of heavenly glory of Jesus.   While praying, Jesus was transfigured into a shining figure, full of heavenly glory. ( In a few weeks we will notice him praying again and that time his face will be red with sweat of blood). But this time he is full of bright light. The suffering in the garden of Gathsemene will lead him to the final glory. At the transfiguration Jesus is found with Moses and Elijah, the representatives of Law and the prophets. Moses had met the Lord in the burning bush at Mount Horeb (Exodus 3:1-4). After his later encounter with God, Moses' face shone so brightly that it frightened the people.  So, Moses had to use a veil over his face to prevent the glare before the people. Elijah had traveled for forty days to Mt. Horeb on the strength of the food brought by an angel (1 Kings 19:8). At Mt. Horeb, Elijah sought refuge in a cave as the glory of the Lord passed over him (1 Kings 19:9-18). So Moses and Elijah who found God’s glory are found with Jesus who is Father’s glory. The message that came from heaven at transfiguration was addressed to the Apostles: my beloved son, to listen to him.
Listening to Jesus, hearing and heeding his voice in our life, is not always comfortable. Abraham discovered this, as we heard in the First Reading. He was living happily and prosperously in the fertile land of Mesopotamia, when God spoke to his heart. God invited him to leave behind his extended family, his business, his homeland, his security, his financial stability, his friends - everything, in fact. And he didn't even tell him where he was going. He just said, "Go to a land I will show you." But God had a plan for his life, a plan that would bring blessings to Abraham himself, and also bring blessings to others through him. Listening and accepting God’s call, he stepped out of his comfort zone and put his trust in God. We can only imagine the turbulence it caused at first between him and his wife, and how awkward he must have felt trying to explain his decision to friends and colleagues.
When God calls, he calls with a special mission and purpose. The first reading today tells us God’s purpose of calling Abraham. “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you.”

So the call of Abraham was to be blessing for all the communities of the earth. Why did God call Abraham away from his own people. Couldn’t he make him a great nation allowing him to live in the same village he was living ? Why did God make his life difficult by making him move to an unknown land ? First of all we need to know that Abraham was a pagan, worshiping pagan gods and living with pagan people. So, in the event of his  getting discouraged with God, there were very high chances for him to fall back to his old way of life, going to his neighbors and relatives who would tempt him to leave his new found God. So, God took him away from his accustomed environment. To get an extraordinary encounter with God, one has to leave everything comfortable to him. Jesus took the three disciples away to a mountain and let them have a beatific vision of him. As a result of God’s taking him away from his pagan surroundings, Abraham was able to develop a great personal relationship with God. Sometimes God destroys everything that might hinder us in our way of developing a relationship with him.
This would explain why God would ask Joshua to exterminate the populace- men, women and children, in the new conquered cities of Jericho, Canaan and Ai. Chapters 1-12 of Joshua are really bloody battles and extermination of other nations by the Israelites. We would even wonder if it is the same God, the father of Jesus Christ who taught him to teach his disciples to show the other cheek if somebody strikes you on your one cheek. We would wish those chapters in the bible were expunged from it. The reason God asked them to kill all those people was to keep them pure and not get any close to worshipping other gods. All the other nations had many gods. God demanded absolute loyalty from the Israelites, like that of a wife to a husband. If they were to allow the conquered people to live with them, their pagan faith would infiltrate the Israelites’ monotheism. That is why the first commandment dictated: I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other god besides me. The disintegration of the people of Israel as a nation started with Solomon who married foreign women and allowed the worship of their foreign gods in Israel. So his both sons divided the nation between them.
Choosing Abraham, an anonymous, un-illustrious man cannot be satisfactorily explained. So are the cases of Isaac and Jacob. Esau was the proper heir of his father Isaac and his choice too. But God chose Jacob, though this happened through a treachery from the part of Jacob. Jacob was a cheater. But still God chose him to be the father of a Great nation. H e is named Israel and the land his family inherited is called Israel Israel, the land that was originally promised to Abraham. Even among the 12 tribes of Israel, God had a special choice of the tribe of Judah from whom the Savior was to come. So, God made choices throughout history. As the scripture says: Rom 9:15-19 : For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion."  It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy.  Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. 
 Even Jesus chose a special group of 3 from the 12 and those three had this special vision of the transfiguration. Why did he not include others in it ? It is God’s choice. It is to show how God’s grace works in our life. As Paul says, it is not by works but by grace that we are saved. It is a pure gift. The choice of whole salvation history points to this truth. God loves all, but he chooses some to be model for others.
Now, when God chooses someone, are those excluded or rejected by God, cursed by God? Not at all. God chooses others to play the role of agents magnifying God’s glory. As God chose Pharoah to magnify his glory in Egypt, he chose other nations in the history. When Israel strayed away from God, God chose even a more wicked nation to be the instrument of God’s punishment on the Israelites. That would explain why even people who live righteous lives are facing challenges and sickness which have no cure. It does not mean that God does not love them, but he uses them for his glory. Looking at a blind man the disciples asked who is the culprit, he or his parents, who sinned ? Jesus said, neither he nor his parents, but through him God’s glory may be made manifest.  And again Jesus said, referring to the people killed by the fall of a tower in Shiloam and those killed by Pilate. Were they more sinful than others living in Israel? He said no. Well, If not, why were they targeted to be victims? God uses some as conduit or instruments to bring conversion and grace to others. But those made victims are also no less chosen of God.
All these choices show that God’s salvation is not merited, but accepted only in grace. But for that, one has to be willing to accept God’s invitation. Jesus’ original intention also was to offer the salvation only through the chosen ones. But when they rejected the free gift of salvation he offered it to the gentiles. That is how the church came to be established as a separate religion from Judaism. Jesus himself said, I am sent to the lost sheep of Israel. And their rejection of salvation became a grace for us gentiles. The Apostles continued in the Jewish religion, but only when they were rejected in their worship places they started the group, known as the people of the way.
God’s choice does not mean freedom from trouble or sufferings. Abraham had to be willing to sacrifice his own son of inheritance. There was no greater challenge to faith than that. Jesus the chosen one of God, about whom the Father said today, this is my beloved son, had to suffer to receive the glory. So does all of his disciples too. Without suffering there is no salvation. The lent challenges us to accept God’s invitation like Abraham, to come out of our comfort zones, and to follow God where he leads us and to have a personal relationship with him through prayer, and to become a blessing for others.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Ist Sunday of Lent- Gen 2:7-9; 3:1-7; Rom 12:5-19; Mt 4:1-11

The Church begins the season of Lent with a reflection on the origin of sin among us.
 The first reading from the book of Genesis (Gen 2:7-9, 3:1-7) describes the “Original Temptation".  Satan told the first parents, if you eat the fruit :"You will be like gods, knowing what is good and what is evil."  (And they fell for that temptation of Satan.) God can test us and allow Satan to test us too as we find in the beginning of the book of Job. Because without testing we can never know how strong you are. Each time we win a temptation our strength grows.
James 1:13-14 says God does not tempt anybody. Every one is tempted by one’s own cravings. God tests us by drawing us to choose Him and do good things and Satan always to evil things. Any pull to do evil is called temptation. We are inspired to do good, not tempted to do good. The primary part of any temptation is from within oneself. Let’s look at the account of the Original Sin. When Satan asked Eve, did God tell you not to eat the fruit of this tree? What did Eve say? She said: God said ‘You shall not eat it or even touch it, lest you die.’”  God did not say they should not touch it. Where did this twisting of the fact come from ? From within herself. She twisted the fact and that revealed her attitude to God’s command as being too strict. That made it easy for Satan to make her break it. So, the temptation comes from within oneself and the cause for it comes from outside. That is why Jesus said, it is not what goes into a man but what goes out of a man that makes one unclean.
Back to the Original Sin- God placed the creation under the dominion of man- asking Adam to name every creature. Only those who had power could name anybody. Parents name the children. But when man yielded to sin and accepted Satan’s expert advice, Satan got dominion over man and everything under man.  This truth is verified in today’s temptation story.
Then the devil took Jesus up to a very high mountain,
and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, "All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.” Now, how can Satan give the kingdoms of the world to Jesus, if those did not already belong to him?. Take note the point that Jesus did not refute Satan’s claim of possessing all the kingdoms of the world. Jesus did not say that Satan was telling a lie, the kingdoms did not belong to him.
In John 14:30 Jesus says, the ruler of the world is coming, referring to Satan, who was going to take control over Judas and others in the trial. Then he adds: He has no power over me. That means Satan has power over others.  And in Jn.16:33 Jesus says, take courage I have overcome the world. This he told in the context of his death and resurrection, by which he would overcome the Satan and get the dominion of the world back from Satan to those who will believe in him. (Keep in mind that Jesus was already rolling back Satan’s kingdom whenever he drove out evil spirits from people). So, whoever surrenders himself to Jesus in faith, is no longer under the power of Satan. Yesterday I was reading a piece of news from Egypt where a priest does exorcisms every weekend in his church and most of the people brought there are Muslims. And the Muslims openly admit that their Mulla’s are not as powerful as a Catholic priest in driving out demons.
A few months ago I noticed a lady filling up so many jars with holy water. I asked her why she was doing it? (making our water bill go high, I wanted to say). She said her house is haunted. They get awaken most of the days at the middle of the night and it has been going on for so many years. She is a Baptist. And I told her: You should ask your pastor to do an exorcism; and she said our pastors don’t do that. And I said that, if it does not get any better by the holy water application, give me a call and I would come and bless her house. She did and I went and blessed her house in Burlington and she never came back here for taking holy water, I believe. We know that at the name and cross of Jesus, Satan shudders.
Jesus overcame the world, and when we are baptized in him, Satan has no power over us those that belong to Christ. But he can frighten and intimidate even those who belong to Christ. I once heard that Satan is like a bullying manager who mistreats his employee and tramps down on him. One day a gentle man walks in and observes this mistreatment and offers this employee a job in his firm and he comfortably works for him there. One day, the old employer walks in and finds him working there and starts giving orders to him as he used to before. The employee due to the old fear in him for this old employer feels frightened; not fully coming to consciousness that he is no longer under him. This is what happens with Christians who are afraid of Satan and are under the Satanic fear. We are set free by the blood on the Cross for ever as Paul says in today’s second reading. Through one man came sin and death, but through another man, the Son of man, came pardon of sin and eternal life. (Now you may ask why did Jesus lock Satan in an iron box, instead of allowing him roaming freely now? I believe, it is to help us love God more. Only free beings can love. If we don’t get tempted, we would love God as robots, we need the freedom and make the choice to love God. For that, Satan has to be here around).
But remember that anytime we sin we are moving to the domain of Satan again and we are giving him freedom in our life. And the longer we stay there we get used to that situation. Like the Hebrews who wanted to go back to the old comfort of Egypt.  We feel comfortable in that sinful state and don’t make adequate effort to go to confession and free ourselves again.
We need to know that there are three categories of sins.  On a scale of 30 inches, say for instance, 1-10 are venial sins. 11-20 grave sins and 21-30 are Mortal sins. The gravity of sin is considered on three grounds. First, the objective gravity of the matter.  Secondly, knowledge of the gravity of the matter to the sinner. How much did one know that the matter was grave and all its implications. Third, the co-operation in the matter or the willingness of the sinner in the act. Did he fully or partially co-operate in it. Now venial sin is like a simple sickness, like common cold. For this, there are two options. One can take a medicine or it can be cured by itself, may be taking a few hours of rest. So, we can take the venial sins to confession or repent and ask God for forgiveness by attending a Mass and receive holy communion; that venial sin is forgiven. But the Grave sin is like a grave sickness; say for instance, a stomach ulcer, pneumonia, tumor, cancer. All these grave sicknesses if left untreated, can kill us. So, we need to repent and take it to confession (You cannot treat any of these sickness by yourself, you have to go to a doctor). If we don’t treat them, we are liable to be dead soon.
Mortal sin is something of a different nature. Mortal means deadly. It is like a heart attack; you need a CPR to be resuscitated. So, if you don’t get a CPR ? you cannot be brought back to life. So, it is primarily God’s gracious action that brings a mortal sinner to grace and if the sinner co-operates he will be healed. And if one dies in that state, he is gone forever. That is why the moment of death is considered very crucial for anybody. Now most of the sins that we do, may probably fall under the category of Grave sin. Not going to Church on Sunday, is a grave sin, not mortal sin. In every grade of sin there may be different degrees too. So, we can never really judge the gravity of any sin with absolute certainly and clarity. Even though we know the matter was grave, we don’t know how well we co-operated or how well we knew of the gravity. For instance, an abortion or murder is always a mortal sin. But the gravity of that mortal sin can be varying depending on the circumstances.  In the case abortion, an unwed mother or a well placed married woman, do not fall on the same level of gravity. Their freedom in choosing the matter and the circumstances would be different.
The important thing to be kept in mind during this lent is that we should confront our temptations and conquer them as Jesus did, by fasting, prayer and the Word of God.    As God said to Cain in Gen.4:7, the sin is lurking at the door, its desire is for you, but you must master it.  The “desert experience” was like a training camp for Jesus to enhance his resolve to fight sins. That is why the Spirit led him there. Let’s ask the Spirit to guide us through this desert experience during this lent so that we may be able to defeat the Satan and see through his tricks.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Joel 2:12-18; 2Cor 5:20-6:2; Mt 6:1-6, 16-18.
Today we start our itinerary towards Easter. The forty days of Lent is the annual retreat of the people of God in imitation of Jesus' forty days in the wilderness. To help us understand the significance of lent the Church makes use of a sign, the sign of ashes. The ashes that we use today are meant to remind us that we are sinners. Although we are children of God, at the same time we are still children of this fallen world.   Ashes are lifeless dust. Insofar as we still give in to our tendencies to selfishness and sin, we too are lifeless dust. Most importantly, the ashes remind us that in spite of our sins, in spite of our deep-seeded selfishness, God hasn't given up on us. 
Yes, we are marked with ashes, because we are sinners, but the mark is given in the sign of Christ's cross, which won for us the grace of a fresh start and a new life. We are marked on our foreheads, because Christ wants us to go boldly into the world as his representatives, as reforming and reformed sinners.
The sign of turning away from sin is indulging in good work. To the Jew the three great cardinal works of religious life were, alms giving, prayer and fasting.  These were seen as the key signs of a pious person, the three great pillars on which the good life was based. Pointing to these practices Jesus asks: Why do you pray, fast, and give alms? To draw attention to yourself so that others may notice and think highly of you? Or to give glory to God? The Lord warns his disciples of self-seeking glory – the preoccupation with looking good and seeking praise from others. True piety is something more than feeling good or looking holy. So Jesus asks them to do these things for the right motive- giving glory to God.
Jesus tells us today to stop being hypocrites, to stop looking like Christians on the outside while being self-centered, arrogant, and egotistical on the inside. The word "hypocrite" comes from the Greek word for "actor". Actors pretend to be someone they're not. That's OK on stage, but not in real life. Jesus is encouraging us to take off our masks, to stop pretending, to once again be true to our true selves. God knows who we are through and through. So, we do not have to make a demonstration before Him to assure Him, and ourselves, that we are doing these good works.

Too easily we fall into a spirit of complacency when it comes to scrutinizing our own lives. Thus, Lent comes as a time of grace to help us fight against this state of non-conversion. Putting our bodies "on a diet" so to say, by fasting from food as well as from other things that give us pleasure (such as smoking, movies, computers, liquor, gossip etc.) will be a help to put our spirit on a diet from sin. Prayer will help us fight against our pride that wants everything to go our way; for prayer is always an acknowledgement that there is a God who leads our history. Almsgiving is the weapon that fights against our love for money. As long as money is something that rules our lives we lack wisdom to see our reality of sin.
By giving up something that we like, we are exercising our faith that this life is not all there is. We are reminding ourselves that we cannot achieve the purpose for which we were created just by trying to concoct heaven on earth through self-indulgence.
Giving up something for Lent can show reverence for God, our Creator and Redeemer. In so doing, we are also strengthening our spirit. We are training our souls in self-discipline and self-mastery. They are also the true purpose behind abstaining from meat today and on Fridays during Lent, and behind fasting today and on Good Friday. Our fasting needs to be accompanied by a deep and sincere sorrow for our sins and the sins of the world around us. This is what Jesus meant in his famous beatitude: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted" (Matthew 5:5). This "mourning" is an interior sorrow for sin.
Lent is the time to examine the depth of the interiority of our Christian life.  A tree has to sink its roots deep into the ground, otherwise it comes down in the first storm. By willing service to our neighbor and controlling our desires let’s try to bring our flesh under the control of the spirit so that we may be able to deepen our spiritual tree.
When we receive the ashes on us today, let's activate our awareness of our ephemeral life here on earth and our sinful inclinations we need to master every day.
And when we receive Holy Communion, let's ask Jesus to help us find out what he wants us to give up for Lent, and let's ask him to give us strength to persevere in loving him with all our hearts, and loving our neighbor as ourselves.