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THE HOUR HAS COME

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The Universal Character of Salvation

Today we see a group of Greek-speaking pilgrims openly declaring their intention to meet the Saviour: “Sir, we should like to see Jesus” (John 12:21).This request summarizes the deepest longing of every human heart, and their non-Jewish background validates the universality of Jesus’ salvific mission as foretold in Scripture: “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him” (Ps.22:27). In response Jesus declares: “Now the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23). What hour has come? The hour to consummate his mission on earth – the mission to reunite the human family in communion with his Father. Let us cast our minds back to the wedding ceremony of Cana when Jesus’ mother told him the wedding party had run out of wine, and his response was: “My hour has not yet come” (John2:4). Also, once during the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus’ brothers encouraged him to go and work publicly in Judaea so he could be seen by people there but he replied: “My time has not yet come” (Jon.7:30). And when, in the middle of a festival, his teaching in the Temple upset some people: “No one seized him, because his hour had not yet come” (John 8:20). So by declaring today that the hour has come Jesus is making it clear the time was ripe for him to shed his blood for the cleansing of human hearts and the satisfaction of their thirst.

Today helays out the condition for those who seek to see him. The sure and only path to glory is by dying to oneself. This flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that promotes self-preservation as the first law of nature. It was Herbert Spencer, the English philosopher who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest”.Spencer’s outlook is that of a world of unending struggle among the species such that the stronger survived and multiplied while the weaker ones disappeared. Jesus turns this philosophy on its head by proposing self-sacrificeas the way to go. He uses a metaphor from nature to bolster his point: “unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.”It’s amazing how a seed germinates! Once inside the soil, the outer skin breaks open, then the seed itself breaks into two and therefrom emerge the root and the stem. Finally, the seedslowly fades away. This is a model of the spiritual life that Christ proposes today. The seeds of faith have been planted in our hearts through baptism, and it is by a life of total self-givingthat we are able to bear fruits for the harvest.  The way to glory is by dying to self – to live no longer for ourselves but for God and for others.

Through death comes eternal life; not physical death but death to oneself. Eternal life begins here on earth for those who choose to die to self. Hence, the hour has come for us to do as St Paul enjoins us: “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Rom. 12:1-2). Jesus himself is emphatic that: “Anyone who loves his life loses it.” This teaching on the meaning of life is usually lost on those who think they are “enjoying” this life to the full.  The truth is that self-obsession is a recipe for self-destruction. We can only secure our life by spending it for God and for others, and that is the spirit of Lent. As Henri J.M. Nouwen put it: “Our humanity comes to its fullest bloom in giving. We become beautiful people when we give whatever we can give: a smile, a handshake, a kiss, an embrace, a word of love, a present, a part of our life…all of our life.”

Today the hour has come as promised through Jeremiah in the First Reading, when God will make a “New Covenant” with the House of Israel. This is the only mention of the New Covenant in the Old Testament. This New Covenant differs greatly from the Old. It is eternal; it is ratified not by the blood of goats and bulls but by the Most Precious Blood of the Son of God; it is written not on stone-tablets or paper but on human hearts; it will not need to be simplified for easier understanding because the Lord will personally teach everyone. This amazing newness is only possible because the Lord will grant the prayers of our Responsorial Psalm today. He will create a new heart for each one and infuse a steadfast spirit within us (Ps. 51:10). This is what Christ has come to effectuate and the hour for that has come.

So we are called to respond to the hour that has come. As the Second Reading says, Jesus lived a life of suffering and self-giving. He offered prayers aloud and in silent tears. Through his suffering he learnt the path of perfect obedience, to accept hardships not with bitterness but with reverence and total submission to his Father’s will. Thusby experiencing all the difficulties that we could possibly ever face,and overcoming them, Jesus became the source of eternal salvation for all who submit to him. Today he stands at the core of the mission to gather all nations into the family of God. As the Catechism says: “By his word, through signs that manifest the reign of God, and by sending out his disciples, Jesus calls all people to come together around him. But above all in the great Paschal mystery – his death on the cross and his Resurrection – he would accomplish the coming of his kingdom” (CCC542). By his crucifixion, Jesus reveals himself to everyone, including the Greeks who came to see him.

Jesus wants everyone to find him, to see him, to learn to know and love him – that’s why he came in the first place.That’s why he let himself be crucified, to show us both his outer self, and his inner self.The crucifixion exposes his heart for all to see – a heart aflame with so much love that it is willing to die for our sake, to suffer unspeakable pain and humiliation in order to reopen to us the gates of heaven.The crucifix is the great revelation of the heart of God.If we want to “see Christ,” to see and know God, we have only to raise our eyes to behold him dying on the cross in order to give us true life.There Christ is most attractive to us – and we should always remember that we are no less attractive to him when we bend under the weight of our own cross and faintness.

At Mass today let us pray for the grace to let Jesus draw us closer to himself more than ever, so that we can begin to hear, and to share, the love-filled beatings of his heart.

 

Readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalms 51:3-4, 12-13, 14-15; Hebrews 5:7-9; John 12:20-33

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The Data of Forgiveness

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The Universal Character of Salvation

The most important ingredient in today’s media economy is data. The amount of data available determines how much and how long we can work or play on the internet. Currently, many of the service providers offer unlimited data plans but we know that those “unlimited” plans are not always unlimited. Sometimes, your download speed can get slowed down when you cross a certain point. Today, however, Jesus gives us the divine model of an unlimited plan. It is the unlimited bundle of compassion and forgiveness which never gets slowed downed shut down for maintenance. The theme for this week is that we must learn to forgive without limits no matter the injury committed against us.

In Matthew’s Gospel, today’s teaching on unlimited forgiveness comes after Jesus had told his disciples the parable of the wandering sheep, so it is plausible that some would have wondered among themselves how many times a good shepherd should go after the same sheep if it keeps wandering away. In those days, people believed that forgiveness was limited to three times only – a fourth transgression was not to be forgiven. So, by asking Jesus how many times he should forgive his brother, Peter was probably aiming to increase the limit to seven times. And Jesus makes it clear that we are to forgive others, “not seven times but seventy-seven times” (Matt. 18:22).That means we must dispense an unlimited data bundle of mercy.

In Jesus Christ, we have the forgiveness of a debt we could never pay. Sin is an offence against God and a direct rebellion against his authority and creation. The debt of 10,000 talents mentioned in today’s parable symbolizes the magnitude of the offence that sin causes in God’s eyes, but he is always willing to forgive without limits. However, we can easily cut ourselves off from God’s river of mercy when we refuse to forgive others. We end up restraining God’s mercy and putting ourselves under strict justice. To unfold his mercy without compromising his justice, God leaves each person free to choose between the two. If we insist on strict justice when we are offended, we bring God’s strict justice upon ourselves. But if we offer an unlimited bundle of mercy to others, we draw God’s unlimited data of forgiveness upon ourselves.

The secret to forming a forgiving heart lies in recognizing the evil of our sin and the immensity of God’s goodness in forgiving us. Until we see the ugliness of our ingratitude and selfishness, we will never appreciate the generosity of God’s forgiveness. Let us examine ourselves now to see how much forgiveness we are giving. Is there someone we still cannot forgive even after they have expressed sorrow for their actions? Have we judged someone too harshly because of something they said or did that we did not particularly like? How many times have we failed to help somebody because we are still dwelling on an injury that we suffered many years ago? How many times have we treated someone differently based on preconceived notions or stereotypes? These are some of the factors that shackle us like chains and that disrupt the unlimited data of divine grace in our lives. When we close ourselves off to people or dismiss them based on our preconceptions, mistaken judgments, and prejudices, not only do we make them suffer, we suffer as well.

But it does not have to be that way. Jesus came to free us from and the burden of sin and unhappiness. Forgiveness is like mercury, which runs away when it is held tightly in the hand but is preserved by keeping the palm open. When we lose forgiveness, we lose the ability to give and to receive love because love is the foundation of forgiveness. And since God is the foundation of love, whoever refuses to forgive automatically rejects the love of God. This is the essence of today’s parable and it is highlighted by the contrast between what was owed by each man. The wicked slave owed his master some 10000 talents. In gold terms, that is 350 tons and at today’s price, he owed his master USD21.8 billion. This was way more than King Solomon made in a year which was 666 talents of gold or USD1.45 billion in today’s value (cf. I Kings 10:14). So, this unforgiving servant owed his master what no individual could never payback. In contrast, his fellow servant owed him the equivalent of one talent of gold or USD2.1 million; so a man who was forgiven $21.8b could not let go of $2.1m, and his wickedness landed him in the hands of torturers.

Dear friends, forgiveness is an act of compassion which is expressed in the free choice to pardon one another’s shortcomings every day, and to also pardon ourselves for own mistakes Forgiveness transcends the fear of being wounded again; it is a deliberate act in imitation of the redemptive work of Jesus, the advocacy of the Holy Spirit, and the loving kindness of the Father. The whole point of today’s parable is that our Father in heaven will do the same to anyone who refuses to forgive others. Whoever refuses to forgive is doomed to a life of bitterness, and as the ugly trend continues, the person ends up building invisible walls of resentment around themselves, thereby blocking off not just one’s relationships with other people but with God as well. Forgiveness is not just an emotional expression or a sense of righteousness; it means being merciful not only when there is an explanation or apology, or a promise of amendment from the offender, but even when the offence is deliberate, and the offender is adamant. Forgiveness is a precious gift of grace, which does not depend on the worthiness of the receiver. Forgiveness is what we called to do, and the Lord’s grace is sufficient for us in that regard. Amen.

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The Paradox of the Cross

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The Paradox of the Cross

Today, Jesus warns his disciples about his imminent passion and subsequent resurrection. But this warning does not go down well with Peter whose impression of the Messiah was that of power and glory. He could not imagine the Son of God and Saviour of the world suffering in the hands of ordinary men. However, the Scriptures had to be fulfilled and anyone who stood in the way would be seen as “Satan” – an obstacle that needs to be put behind.

Accordingly, Jesus lays down a benchmark for authentic discipleship: “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.” This invitation contains the three basic elements of Christian discipleship – self-denial, carrying one’s cross, and following in the steps of Jesus. Our commitment to Jesus must be such that we are willing to endure persecution, hardship, and even death, in order to achieve eternal life. The joy of following Christ involves the pain of self-denial and self-sacrifice, and this is the paradox of the Gospel.

Christian discipleship requires complete self-discipline and, sometimes, humiliation and persecution. This was Jeremiah’s experience in the First Reading. For all his efforts in calling his people to conversion, all he got was mockery and reproach. The prophet saw the calamity coming upon his nation but no one listened to him. It felt like his mission had been a complete failure. It even seemed like God had deceived him into embarking on such a fruitless exercise. Humanly speaking, it is understandable why Jeremiah would rather not continue on such a mission, think no more of it, and say no more about it. But the word of God was so powerful, like fire burning in him, that he could not avoid proclaiming the message. That, in a way, was his own cross.

As Christians, we too must be ready to face ridicule and criticism for the sake of the truth. We must be ready for the risk of being seen as too conservative when it comes to moral issues. We live in a climate of intimidation mounted by a rabidly hostile media which propagates the culture of death and moral relativism. But the word of God is not something that could be bottled-up. As Scripture says, the word of God “is something alive and active: it cuts more incisively than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12). The power of the word is so great we cannot resist doing what it says, just like Jeremiah. Facing up to the ridicule of the world is precisely what it means to take up our cross and follow Christ. Our Lord himself was mocked on the cross, slandered, spat upon, and ultimately crucified in a most gruesome manner. He thereby took upon himself the world’s rejection, which he conquered in a most decisive fashion.

The Second Reading today summarizes the permanent task of a Christian – to offer one’s body as a living sacrifice to God. This is the true and holy worship pleasing to God. The total dedication of oneself to the Gospel of Christ transforms their existence into a single liturgical celebration – a living sacrifice of praise celebrated in the world, but without conforming to the world. Therefore, a Christian existence lived in imitation of Christ becomes an absolute imperative for us all. That is what it means to take up one’s cross.

The people of Jesus’ time knew exactly what the cross meant – the symbol of ultimate degradation, torture, and the execution of condemned criminals. For us Christians, following the cross involves self-denial, suffering, and possibly death, but vindication will come in the end. Before Jesus’ passion, the cross symbolized shame and humiliation, but after his resurrection it became a sign of victory. That is why there is a crucifix in every Catholic church, above the altar, such that as we come into the church, the crucifix becomes the focus of our field of vision. The crucifix – a depiction of humiliation, torture, pain, and death, has become the mark of glory. The cross that was used to crucify the one man who never sinned has become the most recognizable sign in history. The tree of defeat has become the pedestal of triumph – that is the paradox of the cross.

Back to the Gospel passage, Jesus’s response to Peter’s opposition to his impending passion was:“Get behind me, Satan!” This was not a condemnation of Peter but only a rebuke of his natural instincts that could not see the spiritual dimension of the impending Passion of the Christ. That rebuke was an invitation for Peter to get behind the Leader. A disciple cannot make spiritual progress unless they get behind and let Jesus lead the way.

We must learn to see the whole Christian journey as God’s own initiative. As Pope Benedict XVI put it: “God chooses a different way. God chooses the way of the transformation of hearts in suffering and in humility. And we, like Peter, must convert, over and over again. We must follow Jesus and not go before him: it is he who shows us the way.”

Through the cross, Christ reconciles humanity with God and bridges the gap created by sin.

If we wish to go over that bridge and make our way to eternal life in communion with God, we must go the Way of the Cross. We must imitate the Lord in his self-denial, suffering and persecution. Heaven is our ultimate destination but the road to heaven is paved, not with roses but with crosses. The cross is an indelible mark of our faith journey and Christian discipleship stripped of it be comes a mere exercise of convenience.

Today, therefore, let us not shy away from the challenges of true Christian discipleship. That way we can rest assured that our present sorrows“are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom.8:18). Amen.

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The Universal Character of Salvation

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The Universal Character of Salvation

Our message today is on the imperative of pulling down the barriers of separation and discrimination. We need to embrace the universal fraternity of all under one God and Father. In the Gospel, Jesus had gone into the pagan territory of Tyre and Sidon, where he met a woman in desperate need of help for her critically ill daughter. Out of desperation, the woman broke social convention to approach Jesus.

As a woman she was not supposed to speak to a man in public; she was not only a Gentile but also from an area hostile to the Jews. Even the disciples were in a hurry to dismiss her because the avoidance of non-Jews was a sign of one’s communion with the community of the chosen people, and of fidelity to the Mosaic law. Thus, they said to Jesus: “Give her what she wants, because she is shouting after us” (v23).

The woman posed a dilemma to Jesus, but which he would use to prove the universal character of his saving mission. If he healed the pagan woman’s daughter, it would seem to be a neglect of the people of Israel for whom he was primarily sent. And if he denied her the help, it would go against his natural disposition for mercy and compassion – two core elements of his essence and mission. To test the woman’s faith, Jesus employs the metaphor of throwing the food meant for the children to domestic dogs. He tells her it is not proper to give what belongs to the people of God (God’s healing) to those regarded as outsiders (Gentile dogs) by the chosen people.

In reply, the woman makes an act of faith by declaring that even dogs could feed on the crumbs falling from the master’s table. Moved by this show of faith, Jesus announces to her: “Woman, you have great faith. Let your wish be granted”. Her daughter was healed at that instant, and thus the Lord showed that his saving mission was not to the Jews alone but everyone, everywhere.

As we all know, Jesus made very good use of allegories to explain the mysteries of the Kingdom of God. Therefore, even the crumbs that fall from the master’s table are more than enough to satisfy those on the margins – the poor and the outcast – the ‘dogs’ of the earth. By granting the woman her wish, Jesus reveals the universality of his mission. The same theme is at the heart of the message of Isaiah in the First Reading. Anyone – Jew or Gentile – who loves and serves God faithfully will be brought to his holy mountain, and the house of the Lord will be called, “a house of prayer for all the peoples”. Even the Responsorial Psalm echoes a similar message, the Lord governs the earth with justice and equity.

Also, St Paul makes the same point in the Second Reading whereby, “God has imprisoned all men in their disobedience only to show mercy to all mankind”. Therefore, since the Lord “wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4), it is our responsibility to carry the message to all the ends of the earth – that the crumbs of salvation may reach everyone. The universality of salvation is one of the most radical aspects of the Gospel. Before the coming of Christ, salvation was thought to be for the Jews alone – the Chosen People. But with his coming, everyone from every nation is now invited to hope for eternal life in the household of God.

The woman in today’s Gospel is a model of perseverance in prayer and complete trust in God’s mercy. Through her strong faith, humility, and persistence, which moved the Lord’s heart, we get a clear picture of the reason behind Jesus’ redemptive mission. Christ came into the world to “undo the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8), which led the human family into a sinful, broken condition. He came that we all “may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). The fact that God wills everyone’s salvation is the source of his life-mission.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, God is always and everywhere drawing himself close to man. In other words, God is always at work trying to draw each person into his friendship or to deepen that friendship where it already exists. One of the most important ways God does this is by inviting us to be partners with his Providence, to take part in this saving mission.

Just as we share and collaborate in the concerns and projects of our human friends, so too the mature Christian, because he loves Christ and is living the life of grace, accepts God’s invitation to collaborate in building up Christ’s Kingdom, in helping others discover and experience the Gospel, starting with family members, friends, and colleagues. As Christians, this is our most important work, our life-mission, since friendship with Christ is our most important relationship.

Today, Jesus is asking us to renew our commitment to his mission which is our mission too.

Many around us are in desperate need of the mercy and grace of God – just like the little girl in today’s Gospel. Our task is to connect those needy souls to Christ just as the Canaanite woman did, through our prayers, through our example of Christian living, and our concrete actions. We are called to bear witness to our faith, even when it is not popular or convenient to do so. Our actions speak so eloquently that our voices are hardly heard.

Pope Paul VI put it very clearly that: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” May the Blessed Virgin Mary help us with her maternal intercession for courage and a renewed awareness of our true life-mission. Amen!

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