The Good Shepherd and our vocation story: A homily for the 4th Sunday of Easter

The Good Shepherd and our vocation story. The 4th Sunday of Easter.
Acts 2:14,36-41; 1Pt 2:20-25; Jn 10:1-10

“I came that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”

I have heard many vocation stories and the story line is usually much the same. It goes something like this, “I had fame, success, power, money, boyfriend, girlfriend, great career, etc. and then Jesus came into my life and now I am living a life of poverty, chastity and obedience and serving God in the needy and less fortunate.” Thanks be to God for the grace to make such radical changes in our lives but are we not missing the point when the focus of our vocation story is on what we have to give up for the sake of Christ?

Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel, “I came that they might have life and have it more abundantly,” should impress on our hearts the deeper truth that He has not come to take what is ours but to give us what is truly His and His alone – eternal life – and all the good that this life brings. We experience the goodness of God in our vocations when we focus more on God’s offer to us of participation in divine goodness rather than on the sacrifices that Jesus is asking from us.

The focus of the Psalmist is not on what he does or gives up for the Lord-Shepherd but on what the Lord-Shepherd offers to him, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. In verdant pastures He gives me repose; beside restful waters He leads me; He refreshes my soul.”

If Jesus Christ truly comes to give us eternal life and all that we need to embrace and grow in this life along with all the goodness found in this life, how then can we dispose ourselves to receive and experience the goodness of the Good Shepherd in our respective vocations?

First, we must begin to listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd with the intention of obeying His words to us at any cost. The First Reading shows how the risen Christ speaks through St. Peter and empowers the words of this weak Apostle to sting the conscience of his audience and bring about their conversion, “They were cut to the heart… and asked, “What are we to do brothers?”

Jesus continues to speak to us today through His words in Scriptures, through the teaching Church and through our individual conscience, “The shepherd calls His own sheep by name and leads them out.” By listening to Jesus and the many ways that He speaks to us, we begin to recognize His voice and style of acting in all circumstances of our lives. How good our lives would be if we could recognize Jesus’ presence and His constant offer of abundant life to us in all moments of our lives?

Secondly, we must trust the Good Shepherd completely because He knows us very well and knows what is best for us and most satisfying to us, “The shepherd calls His own sheep by name and leads them out.” Jesus knows our past, present, and the future that He is leading us into. He is leading us to a place where He heals our past wounds, give us grace for the moment and hope for the future. By trusting in Jesus and surrendering our plans to Him, we open our hearts to experience the goodness of the Good Shepherd.

Thirdly, we must follow and imitate the Good Shepherd. St. Peter says in today’s Second Reading, “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in His footsteps.” In addition to His personal sanctity, the evil deeds of others never diminished the goodness of Jesus, “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in His mouth…When He was insulted, He returned no insult. When He suffered, He did not threaten.” Nothing stops Jesus from offering Himself to the Father, “He handed Himself over to the one who judges justly.” Divine goodness floods our souls when our striving for holiness is so resolute that we do not let the evil of others lead us astray or distract us from offering ourselves completely to God.

Lastly, we must return constantly to the Good Shepherd when we fall into sin. The repentant crowd in today’s First Reading ask, “What are we to do brothers?” and Peter responds, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” If we fall into sin, we return to Jesus Christ immediately in the Sacrament of Reconciliation without shame or pretense and allow Him to forgive us for ours sins, heal our wounded hearts, and strengthen our union with Him by the power of the Holy Spirit. The same St. Peter says in today’s Second Reading, “Return to the Shepherd and guardian of your soul.”

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, as we celebrate Vocations Sunday today, let us remind ourselves that we all have a vocation by virtue of baptism. Whatever our vocations in life, our fundamental Christian vocation is to unite ourselves to Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, more completely and to participate in what is only Christ’s to give i.e. His divine life, holiness, virtues, worship of the Father, service to others, prayer, union with the Father by the Holy Spirit, life of complete surrender to the Father, mission and glory.

The focus of our Christian vocation cannot just be on what we do or sacrifice out of love for Christ. Jesus is not a “thief who has come to steal, slaughter and destroy.” But He has come to fill us with the goodness of His own divine life and to help us respond to it. In short, it is Jesus Christ and His fidelity to His vocation that makes our own vocation possible. We can only give ourselves to God and others simply because Jesus Christ has first given Himself to us and has come to us that we might have life and have it abundantly as we respond to His call to sacrifice.

We look to imitate Mother Mary who did not focus on what sacrifices that her vocation demanded but on the participation in divine goodness that Jesus offered to her. She shared her vocation story with her relative Elizabeth in these words, “He who is mighty has done great things for me… He has mercy on those who fear Him.” The goodness of the Good Shepherd was more than enough to strengthen her in the moments when the sacrifices were overwhelming.

In the Eucharist that we celebrate today, Jesus comes to us not to take from us what is ours but to give us what is truly His and His alone to give – eternal life and all the goodness contained therein. In the Eucharist He gives us an opportunity to unite with His own self-offering to the Father along with the sacrifices of our vocations. We thank Jesus for the grace to make the many sacrifices that He is calling us to make out of love for Him. But we cannot focus on these things that we give up for Him or hope to find our joy in them.

If we rather listen more attentively to Him, trust Him completely, follow and imitate Him more closely and return to Him always in our sins and struggles, we shall surely experience the goodness of the Good Shepherd in our lives no matter the sacrifices that He is demanding from us today in our vocations.

Glory to Jesus!!! Honor to Mary!!!

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Easter and the suffering of the faithful: A homily for the 3rd Sunday of Easter

3rd Sunday of Easter. April 30, 2017.
Acts 2:14, 22-23; 1Pet 1:17-21; Lk 24:13-35

Easter and the suffering of the faithful

Was it not necessary that the Christ would suffer these things and enter into His glory?

She was a Filipina religious sister who had accepted to leave her beloved country to serve for close to 17 years in the foreign missions in the Middle East. She had contracted an incurable disease while on this mission and she was brought home to die. The recurrent question in her mind was, “Why me?” She had given her life to serve Christ in His Church, embraced the vocation to consecrated life and was generous enough to spend so much of her life serving those in need in a foreign land. What has she to show for all her lifelong commitment to Christ and to the Gospel? An incurable sickness and a long wait for death? It appears it was all a waste of time and energy on her part. Regardless of our holiness or sinfulness, we can never really understand why such suffering comes our way in this life as we strive to follow Christ.

This Easter season, as we contemplate the person of Jesus, all the good that He did on this earth, the unjust sufferings that He endured from men and demons, and how His Father raised Him from the grave, we realize that the suffering and death of Jesus were not in vain.

St. Peter explains to the Jews the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Pentecost event in today’s First Reading by telling the story of Jesus. Jesus, the one “without sin,”(Heb 4:15) “who did all things well,”(Mk 7:37) was also “commended by God with mighty deeds, wonders and signs.” By divine plan, this same Jesus suffered an unjust death and was “killed by lawless men.” His suffering and death was never in vain because “God raised Him up,” and, “exalted at the right hand of God, He (Jesus) received the promise of the Holy Spirit from the Father and poured it forth, as you both see and hear.” Because of Jesus’ bond with the Father by the Spirit, His sufferings and death is not in vain but His suffering has become the pathway to glory for Him and the means for us to receive His own Spirit.

Thus, we also gained a generous outpouring of the promised Holy Spirit today because Jesus Christ was crucified unjustly and raised by the Father into glory. By possessing this same Spirit today, we too are assured that our own sufferings is not going to be in vain but the way to our own glory. “If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, then He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit dwelling in you.”(Rom 8:11)

In today’s Gospel, the two disciples on the way to Emmaus appear to have lost all hope because of the suffering and death of Jesus, “He was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people. How our chief priests and rulers both handed Him over to a sentence of death and crucified Him. We were hoping that He would be the one to redeem Israel.” There is a sense that all their years of devotedness to Jesus and His Gospel, leaving all to follow Jesus as His disciples was in vain. Jesus replied, “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and so enter into His glory?” He reminds them that, in the eternal plan of the Father, His suffering and death was never in vain; but suffering is necessary for Him to enter into His glory.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, when we have the Spirit of Jesus in us, we have the life of Christ in us as God’s own children and we truly belong to God. By this same Spirit in us, we can do the things that Jesus did and endured with love for God and for our neighbors. By this Spirit, we share in the suffering of Christ and receive divine guarantee that our sufferings will never be in vain but that God will surely bring good out of the evil that we suffer for Christ and with Christ. By this same Spirit, we share in the glory of Christ if only we too share in His suffering. In the words of St. Peter, “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”(1Pet 4:14)

St. Peter reiterates this point by stressing that the blood of Christ shed on the cross was not in vain but became the price that ransomed us from sin, “You were ransomed from the futile conduct, handed on by our ancestors, not with perishable things like silver and gold but with the precious blood of Christ as a spotless unblemished lamb.” We have faith and hope in God because Christ suffered while bearing in Himself the Spirit of love and the Father raised Him from the dead by the same Spirit, “Through Him (Christ) we believe in God who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.”

We may not understand completely why we experience suffering and pain in this life as we strive to do God’s will and Him more faithfully. It may be the emotional pains from events and relationships, physical pains, spiritual sufferings from persistent temptations, moral failures that just seem to plague us for life, etc. we cannot pray these sufferings away nor avoid them completely. The “Why?” question seem unanswerable. The Spirit of Jesus Christ in us is God’s guarantee to us that He will surely bring good out of the suffering that we experience in this life and make these sufferings a pathway to our own glory if we suffer like Christ and with Christ.

Today’s readings show us some ways of dealing with the sufferings that we face as Jesus’ disciples. First of all, we must nourish and grow constantly in the life of the Spirit within us. Like the disciples in today’s Gospel, we must listen to the word of God, letting His words “burn within our hearts.” Listening to God’s words, we realize more deeply God’s intense desire to share His own glory with us through our sharing in the suffering of His Son. Secondly, we invite Jesus into each and every aspect of our lives, to abide in us and to take absolute control. Our invitation to Him, “Stay with us,” must be accompanied by a striving for complete surrender and purity of heart. Thirdly, we consciously unite our sufferings with Christ and see our sufferings as a sharing in His own suffering.

The Risen Christ is present in us through the Holy Spirit as we celebrate the Eucharist today. Only Jesus Christ can transform our sufferings and give them meaning and life-changing power by the power of the Spirit. We cannot fathom the good that God can do with our sufferings united to those of Christ and borne with His Spirit. Sinners can be converted, just souls can be strengthened, souls in purgatory can be relieved and released as we unite our sufferings with those of Jesus by the power of the Spirit that we have received in Baptism. Apart from Jesus and deprived of the Spirit that He won for us by His paschal mystery, our sufferings are useless and in vain.

This Easter, let our Eucharist today be an occasion of exchange where we receive the Spirit of Jesus, surrender our sufferings and pains to Him, and allow Christ Jesus to mysteriously bring good out of them for us and for the entire Body of Christ. We may never understand why these sufferings come. But the life of Christ in us assures us that, if like Jesus, we bear the Spirit of love within us as we suffer for Christ and with Christ, our sufferings will never be in vain but will become for us a Spirit-guaranteed pathway to our full participation in Christ Jesus’ heavenly glory.

Glory to Jesus!!! Honor to Mary!!!

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Feeling abandoned by Jesus? Think again. – A homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent

5th Sunday of Lent. April 2, 2017.

Ez 37:12-14; Rom 8:8-11; Jn 11:1-45

 

Feeling abandoned by Jesus? Think again.

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

 

I can never forget that Sunday evening after Mass in our parish in Boston. I was a seminarian then and I was locking up the Church after evening Mass when I saw it: A white Communion host on the pew of the Church. Obviously, someone had received Holy Communion during Mass and then somehow left our Eucharistic Savior on the pew and walked away.

 

It was a painful reminder of how much risk Jesus has taken to become one like us and then to give Himself to us in Holy Communion. Many would reject Him and would not believe in His Real Presence. Many will question His ability to give Himself to us in such humble conditions. Many would stay away from the Eucharist because, in their opinion, they are not getting anything out of the Mass. Many would stay away because they think that they are not worthy to receive Him. Many would receive Him in Communion and then abandon Him in the pew. Many will make sacrilegious Communions and receive Him with little or no repentance for their sins. Our Eucharistic Savior never abandons us and nothing stops Him from coming to give us life.

 

In today’s Gospel passage, Lazarus’ two sisters seemed to have memorized the same song of lament, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” They must have rehearsed and internalized those words at their moment of grief, just waiting to say it to Jesus. It was an endless mantra, a cry that accused Jesus of abandoning them at the moment of their brother’s sickness when they had sent Him a desperate message, “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.”

 

Little did they realize that Jesus could never abandon anyone, much lest His friends. If only they realized the great risk that Jesus took to come and visit them at their moment of grief. His disciples thought that He was out of His mind when He spoke about leaving His safe haven in Galilee to return to Judea and risk being stoned to death by the irate Jews. They had responded in disbelieve, “Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, and you want to go back there?” But nothing will deter Jesus from going to console his friends and to raise His friend Lazarus.

 

Despite Jesus’ deep love for Lazarus and His knowledge that Lazarus was dying, Jesus had remained where He was for two days because Jesus never does anything to please Himself but to please the Father no matter the pains that it would cause Jesus or others, “The one who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, because I always do what is pleasing to Him.”(Jn 8:30) This is why Jesus responds to the news of Lazarus’ sickness with these words, “This sickness is not to end in death, but it is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

 

To stay behind two more days when He had the power to heal Lazarus by a word of His command, to let His friend Lazarus die when He could easily have prevented it, to see Martha and Mary weep at the death of Lazarus when He could have prevented those tears – all these were painful for Jesus and He showed it by His deep tears at the grave of Lazarus, “And Jesus wept.” These are the tears of One who never abandons His own but who gives them life just as the Father wills that He should, “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom He wills.”(Jn 5:21) Jesus assures that He would never abandon His own even in the grave, “I am the Resurrection and the Life, whoever believes in me, even if He dies, will live.”

 

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, if Jesus never abandons His friends even in death, He will surely never abandon us who are now children of God because we have the Spirit of God in us. We are more than just friends of Jesus now; we are now children of God like Jesus, co-heirs with Him of His Father’s unfailing love, by the Spirit of adoption that we receive at Baptism.

 

St. Paul reminds us in today’s Second Reading of the privilege and responsibility of having the Spirit of Jesus in us. First, by possessing the Spirit of God in us, we belong to God as His own children, “Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to Him.” Secondly, we are delivered from living “according to the flesh,” seeking always to please ourselves without any regard for the glory of God. Like Jesus, possessing the Spirit, we too can do and endure all things so as to please God and not just to please ourselves, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Lastly, we have the guarantee and divine assurance of future Resurrection i.e. God will not abandon His own people, even in the grave, “If the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the One who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through His Spirit dwelling in you.” We share with Jesus that assurance that, as the Father did not abandon Him in His suffering and death, He will surely never abandon us too in life and in death.

 

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, if Christ Jesus will not abandon us, in life and in death, even in the grave, then He will never abandon us even in our sins, trials, and sufferings. We only need to ask ourselves if we are living as God’s children today, seeking to please our loving Father in all that we think, say and do simply because we are His children. Jesus will never abandon us and it is not because of any good that we have done but simply because we have dwelling in us that Spirit that Christ merited for us by His passion, death and Resurrection.

 

On a practical level, one clear sign that we are living as God’s beloved children is that we are not slaves to fears in this life. Whether it is the fear of losing a loved one, the fear of losing our job, the fear of being abandoned and rejected, the fear of losing our health and strengths, the fear of ridicule, etc., when we live as God’s children by the power of the Holy Spirit, we do not fear anything, not even death, because we know that God will never abandon us, even in death.

 

Our divine guarantee that we will not be abandoned is renewed and made effective in every Eucharist where Jesus repeatedly pours His Spirit into our souls and assures of His continued abiding presence with us in life and in death. As we face life’s hurts and pains, losses and sorrows, there is no need to lament saying, “Lord, if only you were here.” He is with us always, risking everything just to give us His life even in our pains and moments of darkness. Let us be certain today that if we never abandon Jesus, if we continue to live as God’s own children, seeking to please the Father in all things and not ourselves by the power of His Spirit, Jesus will never abandon us but will surely risk all just to give us life, even from the grave.

 

Glory to Jesus!!! Honor to Mary!!!

 

 

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Passion for Jesus: How and why?

3rd Sunday of Lent. March 19th 2017.

Ex 17:3-7; Rom 5:1-2,5-8; Jn 4:5-42

 Passion for Jesus: How and why?

 I saw in him many signs of a priestly vocation. He spoke enthusiastically about joining a religious community and becoming a priest. When I asked him why he was hesitating to do so, he gave me that response I have heard so many times, “I do not think I am worthy to be a priest. I have so many sins and weaknesses in my past.”

Whenever the sense of our past sins and failures begin to prevent us from following Jesus more closely or making him better known to others, we need to pause and ask ourselves this question, “How excited am I about Jesus? Is my excitement for Jesus greater than my sense of unworthiness or my struggles? What makes me really excited about Jesus?” Unless we are really excited and passionate about Jesus and know exactly why we are excited about Him, we cannot follow Him closely to the very end or make Him known to others because the sense of our past sins, weaknesses, and failures will surely make us discouraged and lose heart.

Many spiritual writers say that the woman at the well in today’s Gospel passage came to fetch water at noon because, due to her sinful life, she was avoiding making contact with other villagers who would come to fetch water at a much earlier time of the day when the sun’s heat was not at its peak. But after her conversation with Jesus, she left her water jar and went back to the village to face the same villagers now with excitement, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Christ?” She was filled with so much excitement from her conversation with Jesus that the thought of her sinfulness could not hinder her passionate message.

Most importantly, this woman knew exactly why she was excited about Jesus – Jesus knew her very well. Jesus knew her past with all her sins, struggles, weaknesses, and false hopes. Jesus knew that she had had five unsuccessful marriages and was currently in an adulterous relationship, “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” Jesus knew her deepest desires at the present moment and the only thing that can satisfy it – the living water of divine grace, “Whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst, but the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” He knew her and her sinful past very well, yet He offered her grace for the present moment and a better and fulfilling future filled with hope.

Jesus is also passionate and excited about His mission and knows why, “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish His work.” Jesus is passionate about us not because we are good in ourselves or holy but because we are the Father’s gift to Him, “Father, they are your gift to me.”(Jn 17:24) We should be excited about Jesus too because He knows us well and still offers to satisfy our hearts now and bring us into His glorious future. Jesus knows our past with all our shortfalls, yet He knows and loves us in the present and what we really desire, and He offers us His fulfilling love and a more fulfilling future with Him.

St. Paul emphasizes this point in today’s Second Reading in these powerful words, “For Christ, while we were still helpless, died at the appointed time for the ungodly…But God proves His love for us, in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” He knew our sinful past and present sins very well and He did not wait for us to become perfect before He laid down His life for us. With full knowledge of our unworthiness, He died for us so that today we might be “justified by faith,” enjoy a “hope that does not disappoint,” and have the love of God “poured into our hearts.” This is how passionate Jesus is for us. Why then do we let the thoughts of our sinful past and present struggles kill that excitement and passion that we should have for Him?

If we are not excited about Jesus and our relationship with God as His children in Christ, if we do not know why we should be excited about Jesus, if the weight of our sinfulness is deeper than the gift of our being adopted as God’s children, we face life grumbling and complaining like the Israelites in today’s First Reading, “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt? Was it just to have us die here of thirst, with our children and our livestock?” They failed to realize that the God who brought them out of bondage knew very well their thirst for water and was ready to provide water from a rock in their journey and bring them to the Promised Land.

This Lenten season, the Lord Jesus is surely inviting us to follow Him more closely and to give more faithful witness to others about what He has done for us in our lives. The devil is surely working hard to discourage us by imprinting in our memories the pains and regrets from past sins and struggles. We too may be living in the past, becoming slaves of shame and guilt. We may even refuse to accept divine forgiveness and to forgive ourselves and others. We can never find the real reason to be passionate about Christ in ourselves or in our situation in life. We can follow Him closely to the end and bear witness to Him only if our passion for Him is rooted in the fact that He knows us more than anyone and He offers us a participation in His glorious life.

Just like he did to the Samaritan woman, Jesus, who knows us very well as well as all our past sins, awaits us in the Sacrament of Confession to cleanse us from these sins, strengthen us for the present and lead us to a better future. He who is so passionate for us that He did not hesitate to “die for us while we are still sinners,” cannot wait to nourish us with His own Body and Blood in the Eucharist we celebrate today. What can hinder our own passion for Him?

By her words in the Magnificat, “He who is mighty has done great things for me… He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaid,” Mary knew in her heart that God knew her and her past and was bringing her to the glorious life beyond the cross. This is how she could followed Jesus in her lowliness to the very end with a passion that never faded. With her help, we too can be passionate for Jesus till the end when we know with certainty that He knows us well and offers us at each moment a more fulfilling future with Him no matter what the past has been.

Glory to Jesus!!! Honor to Mary!!!

 

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The transforming power of grace today: A homily for the 2nd Sunday of Lent

2nd Sunday of Lent. March 12, 2017.

Gen 12:1-4; 2Tim 1:8-10; Mt 17:1-9

The transforming power of grace today

It is the Lenten season once again, the season of conversion and repentance and sincere turning back to God, aware of His undying love for us, His constantly straying sheep.  There may be lurking in our thoughts the idea that this is just going to be another Lenten season in which we will be left unchanged. We have had many of them, begged for God’s grace to change us and still we find ourselves struggling with the same sins and failures of the past years. Does grace still change us? What does that change look like?

I recently came across the interesting conversion story of Fr. Juan Jose Martinez. As a child and during his adolescence years, his heart was filled with hatred for priests and the Catholic Church. On Sunday mornings, he would look out of the balcony of his house at people going to Mass and spit at them, insult them, and tell them that the Church was just “a sect that wanted their money.” He blatantly refused to receive any religious upbringing and his parents were not believers. His friends relentlessly invited him to join them in their Catholic Charismatic Renewal prayer group sessions at their parish each Thursday. He went with them one day just to mock and make fun of them because he believed that they were stupid and dumb people. He described the devotion of this group to be Blessed Sacrament rather humorously, “They were all looking at a golden box at the back of the church. I didn’t know what it was, but I thought it was where the parish priest kept the money.”

Strangely, he found himself coming back every Thursday to sit still in front of the Tabernacle. In his words, “Little by little, the love of God was penetrating my heart: I was 15 years old and I started to sing at Mass, which meant I would attend Mass on Saturdays. I liked being in front of the tabernacle and little by little, I realized that God existed and He loved me. I felt the love of God. The Charismatic Renewal group, which I had come to make fun of, helped me a lot.”

He would eventually receive the Sacraments of Initiation and begin to attend daily Mass. In the course of his slow conversion that led him to shed many of his earlier ideas about God and the Church, he made a commitment to God in these words, “Lord, I am yours for whatever you need.” God took him at his word.

He later sensed God inviting him to enter into the seminary at the age of 17 to become a priest. His father was infuriated at his request to become a priest and beat Juan severely. His father was more willing to pay for his studies in the United States than to let him become a Catholic priest. But Juan bid his time and patiently waited and continued to nurture his vocation till his father finally gave him permission to go to the seminary in May 1999. He was ordained a priest in 2006 and had the great privilege of administering the Sacrament of Holy Anointing to his father who passed away a few years later.

The young Juan who hated priests and the Church, who used to spit on worshippers and who came to Church just to mock worshippers is now Fr. Juan Jose Martinez of the diocese of Almeria, Spain. His story is a testament that the grace of God can and still changes us completely, heart, mind, body and soul, but only on one condition – that we are ready to belong to God completely and to do only what pleases Him. For grace to transform us completely from the inside out, we must have the same attitude and sentiments towards God that we find in the words of the young Juan, “Lord, I am yours for whatever you need.”

In the Second Reading, St. Paul reminds St. Timothy that, in Jesus Christ, God offers us all the graces that we need, “The grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus before time began.” He also mentions how this grace can affect our lives. Divine grace transforms us from weaklings to persons with such inner strength that we can “bear our share of the hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.” Grace also enlightens and moves us away from sinful lives towards love of God and neighbor as His children and to participate in the very life and love of God, “He saved us (by grace) and called us to a holy life.”  The story of Fr. Juan, the sufferings that he was ready to endure for his vocation, and his readiness to embark on a new life in the service of God and neighbor are testaments to the transforming power of grace today.

The Transfiguration of Jesus in today’s Gospel is not Christ Jesus showing off His divine power or majesty; rather it is the Father revealing to us a brief glimpse of the abundance of grace that He has offered to us in Jesus Christ. This grace in Christ is the seed of glory. When the amazed disciples indicate their awe at the change of Jesus’ face and their desire to remain with Him on the mountain, the Father responds by pointing to Jesus as the way of transformation, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, listen to Him.” To be transformed from the inside out, they must unite with Jesus and imitate Jesus who belongs completely to the Father and who always acts to please the Father; not Himself. As Jesus’ clothes and face are transformed, we are divinely assured that more deeply will we be transformed by divine grace if we are willing to belong to Him and to allow Him to use us and all that we are and have as He wills.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, our desire to change for the better is a sign that we are made by God and for God. It is also a sign of God’s presence in our lives and our call to surrender to Him completely. We want to have strength in our battles and hardships, to be saved from our sinful addictions and to live holy lives and thus to enjoy the peace and joy that comes from such authentic interior change. Let us not be fooled – nothing from outside can change our hearts for the better if it is not inspired and infused with the grace of God and accompanied by our sincere desire to belong to Him for His good pleasure.

We see here in the Philippines a certain futile tendency to bring about change in drug addicts through threats, warnings, fear of death penalty, etc. Many of these our brothers and sisters desire to change for the better but they just cannot do so. True interior change comes about only through the grace of God and that willingness on our part not to live for ourselves alone but for Him who “for our sake died and was raised,”(2 Cor 5:15) and our willingness do only what pleases Him.

Yes, God’s grace will and can transform us completely when we are willing to say sincerely from our hearts, “Lord, I am yours for whatever you need.” Let us surrender all that we have and are to Him through Mary, the Mother and Mediatrix of all Grace. She through whom the Author of Grace, Jesus Christ, came to us, also obtains for us all the graces that we need from Jesus and helps us to open our hearts to the transforming power of God’s grace. Mother Mary had no greater desire than to belong to God and to be completely at His disposal for whatever He willed for her, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word.” Divine grace transformed her from a chaste virgin to the worthy Mother of God.

Fr. Juan looked intensely and continuously at the Tabernacle and he was transformed because he encountered the sole Author of grace, Jesus Christ, sacramentally present in the Tabernacle and he (Juan) was tired of living for himself. As we encounter Jesus in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass today, let us remember that grace is given to us so that we belong to God as His children who are ready to do only what pleases Him. The grace of God always has the power to transform us and make us strong in our difficulties, save us from our sins and sinful tendencies, and make us holy like Jesus. Will the grace of this Eucharist change us completely today? It all depends on our willingness to say from our hearts, “Lord, I am yours for whatever you need.”

Glory to Jesus!!! Honor to Mary!!!

 

 

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Philippians 4 and distractions in prayer

We must all have had that experience before – we come to prayer intent on listening to God but our minds are running all over the place following distracting thoughts. Someone once said humorously, “If you want to remember the things that you easily forget or tend to ignore, start praying seriously.” Prayer time easily become time to remember the chores that must be done, all our unfinished business, our hurts, worries about the future, and regrets about the past.

How do we deal with these distracting thoughts, images or feelings? Some spiritual writers recommend that we merely ignore them. We can indeed ignore them when they are just fleeting thoughts or images that have little or no emotional effect on us. But we just cannot ignore them completely when they are persistent and have strong affective effects on us.

St. Paul writes to the Philippians from prison, unsure of how his life would end, but refusing to succumb to discouragement, regrets, or self-pity. Forgetting himself, he focuses instead on his Christian brethren to encourage them in their own sacrifices for Christ. Phil 4:4-9 shows us a way to focus on the Lord in the midst of countless thoughts that distract us in prayer.

First of all, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” This calls us to rejoice in the Lord’s loving presence in our lives. Most of the time our distractions are an indication of the people and things that we tend to find our greatest source of joy in e.g. respect, wealth, comfort, success, etc. We must ask, “What am I rejoicing in today? Am I rejoicing in the Lord and His presence in my life or in something else?” We might even find ourselves rejoicing in our success at prayer! Remember the words of Jesus, “For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.” (Mt 6:21) To check distractions, we must ask ourselves if Jesus is indeed the sole treasure of our hearts.

We also open the door to distractions when we tend to rejoice in the Lord only when our life conditions are favorable. Our prayer becomes more distracted when we do not accept the realities of our life condition. Unlike St. Paul, we do not rejoice in the Lord always because we are far from accepting the truth of our situation. No matter the worries, we must enter into prayer first with gratitude to God above all for His loving presence in our lives without worrying about the solutions to our problems or worries. In all circumstances, we must echo Mary’s words in her Magnificat, “My soul rejoices in God, my Savior.”

Secondly, “Your kindness should be known to all.” This calls us to examine those distractions that are rooted in sour relationships with others in our lives. Have we let resentments into our hearts and are we trying to pray while nurturing these resentful thoughts in our hearts? Jesus reminds us that resentments jeopardize our prayer life, “If you bring your gifts to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gifts at the altar and go; first be reconciled with your brother and then come and offer your gift.”(Mt 5:23-24) An act of kindness towards those who have hurt us, even if it is something as simple as praying for them, gives us power over many distractions in our prayer.

Thirdly, “The Lord is near.” This is a reminder to us that in Jesus Christ, God has drawn near to us, dwelling in our hearts by faith. We usually begin our prayer by becoming aware of the presence of God. But do we go to prayer with that certainty that we are in the presence of the God who is ever present to us in His unconditional love for us and not because we are good. We must come to prayer as people reconciled with God, without any shame, regrets, guilt or pretense, knowing that we have been reconciled with God through the blood of His Son Jesus Christ. Our pretensions and defenses only multiply and intensify our distractions.

In addition, our distractions may also point to areas of needed conversion or growth in holiness. True prayer leads to our purification and God will surely shed light on sinful areas of our lives for the sake of healing, setting us free and drawing us closer to Him. Since living with the certainty of being reconciled with God blocks many of our distractions in prayer, frequent reception of the sacrament of reconciliation greatly enhances our prayer life and minimizes our distractions.

Fourthly, “Have no anxiety at all.” How can we surrender all anxiety in our lives? One thing that can help is to enter into prayer with a sense of being in the presence of the one who is closer to us than those nagging thoughts and to know that we are not condemned to a life of perpetual fixation on our worries. Our anxieties increase and intensify when God appears distant from us or completely uncaring. The same God that was with St. Paul in prison is with us in all our circumstances too. This is the truth that liberates us from endless worries and anxieties.

Fifthly, “Whatever is true, what is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious…, think of these things.” Our anxieties are compounded by our unguarded imagination. This is a call to examine our self-talk and notice where the negative thoughts and feelings are coming from. Are these thoughts rooted in truth? Speaking to Jesus honestly about the deepest thoughts and desires of our hearts, no matter how embarrassing they may be for us, opens them to the light of truth and lets us see things more the way that He sees them.

Lastly, “In everything, by prayer and petition, make your requests known to God.” We do not make our requests known to God so that He fulfills them for us. But we “make our requests known to God,” so that He may conform them to His holy will which is to bring us deeper into relationship with Him no matter what we are experiencing in life. Our refusal or reluctance to submit to God’s will in prayer only exasperates our distractions in prayer.

Like Mary in the wedding at Cana we must make all our requests known to God with humble faith, “They have no wine.” But we must also be ready to do His will with love as she counsels us, “Do whatever He tells you.” Prayer is not about getting God to do our will but to bring us to submit to His will in all conditions and situations of our lives, especially in those situations that distract us in prayer. Submission to God’s will in all things focuses our attention on God and not on us and our problems and leaves us with that hope and peace that St. Paul speaks of, “Let the peace of God that surpasses all understand to guard your hearts and minds in Christ.”

Distractions will always be a part of our life of prayer as long as we are in this world. We cannot just ignore all of these distractions because they may be God’s invitations to look deeper into our hearts and learn something about Him, ourselves, and others. This is how we develop that self-knowledge that is indispensable for a deeper intimacy with God in life and in prayer. So, rather than letting this distractions hinder our prayer life, let our hope be rooted in the truth that the God who has given us this desire to pray and to be in a relationship with Him also permits us in His mysterious providence to have these nagging distractions in prayer.

The sufferings of the incarcerated St. Paul and his uncertain future did not take his focus away from Christ but spurred him on to encourage others to rejoice always in the Lord alone. Our distractions in prayer too cannot take away our focus from God if we begin today to face these distractions with that attitude of Mary that St. Paul calls us to, that attitude that says in all things, good or bad, success or failure, light or darkness, “My soul rejoices in God, my Savior…alone.”

Glory to Jesus!!! Honor to Mary!!!

 

 

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Dare to be different for God’s sake: A homily for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

5th Sunday of Ordinary Time. February 5th 2017.

Is 58:7-10; 1Cor 2:1-5; Mt 5:13-16

Dare to be different for God’s sake

Jesus uses two images in today’s Gospel to describe His disciples – salt and light, “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.”

Two things about these two images. First of all, salt is different from food and light is different from darkness, “God separated the light from the darkness.” (Gen 1:4) Secondly, when these opposites are mixed or brought together, salt changes and transforms the food while light dispels darkness. It is not food that changes salt but salt that changes the taste of food. It is not darkness that chases light away but light that dispels darkness.

Called to be salt of the earth and light of the world, we Christians must be different from the world and aware of our power to transform the world we live in. As salt of the earth, we cannot afford to lose that which makes us what we are and different from others, “If salt loses its taste, it is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” As lit lamps, we cannot forget that we have been lit and set on a lampstand for a purpose beyond ourselves i.e. to “give light to all in the house.”

But what is it that makes us different and gives us this power to transform our world? Far from making us appear elitist to others, what makes us different and powerful is not what we have or do; it is nothing but the message and power of the Cross of Christ. Because Jesus Christ suffered and died for us while we were still sinners, because Jesus Christ rose from the dead to share with us His own divine life, because Jesus dwells in us now and has made us belong to God as His beloved child, our lives must be different because He thus empowers us to live for Him now and for no other, “Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”

In today’s Second Reading, St. Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth to remind them of that basic truth: they are different now because of the Paschal mystery. The Corinthian believers are living just like their non-Christian counterparts in the affluent Corinth of the time. The Christians were practicing the same depraved sexual immorality as non-Christians, they were also divided into bitter warring factions even in their communal Eucharist, and they were also having lawsuits among believers.

St. Paul did not come to them with “sublimity of words or of wisdom” but he came in “weakness and fear and much trembling” so that their faith “might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” It is not human wisdom but the gift of faith in the Crucified One that makes them unique and leads them to Christ, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you, except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” Despite his weakness and lack of sublime words, God worked powerfully through St. Paul because he was not afraid to be different as one belonging to God, “He (God) who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through His grace was pleased to reveal His Son to me.”(Gal 1:15-16)

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, in the face of all the forces of darkness and evil in today’s world and in our Churches, families and communities, it is so easy to get sad, angry, discouraged or just become uncaring. We have been mixed inseparably with the world. Most of the time, we let the darkness in our world change us for the worse as if we are not the salt of the earth and light of the world with power to bring good out of darkness. Our world changes us because we are usually unwilling to be different. Nothing renders us more spiritually impotent than the desire to blend with the world, to be accepted and liked, to belong and to be just one of the crowd. If the good in us is going to triumph over evil in the world, we must then ask, “Am I ready and willing to be different from others because I belong to God? Am I ready to think, judge and act differently because the Cross of Jesus makes a difference in my life?”

We must never lose what makes us different and powerful i.e. the life of the risen One within us. We lose this life through unrepented mortal sin. He has giving us our saltiness and our light as well as the situations that demand the use of these gifts, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”(Jn 9:5) We belong to Him now. Can we let Him use us by our generous response to His grace in a dark world? Can we let Him use us not for our selfish interests but for His own glory? Or are we going to let our fear of being different from others cripple His beautiful plan for us and our world?

This invitation to be different for the sake of transforming the world was offered to Mary at the Annunciation. She was not afraid to be radically different from all of humanity in an unprecedented and unrepeatable manner. She was not afraid to be the sinless Virgin Mother of God. Because of her willingness to be different from others for God’s greater glory, she became the means through which Jesus Christ has transformed us into God’s own children. May she help us to respond likewise and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

Our Eucharist is an encounter with Jesus and the powerful transforming grace that He won for us on Calvary. The cross of Christ has the power to transform all things, including us, our dark world and painful experiences, if and only if we are not afraid to be different from others for God’s own sake.

Glory to Jesus!!! Honor to Mary!!!

 

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