Thursday, July 30, 2020

Finding Yourself Requires a Sincere Gift of Self

Jesus’ stern rebuke of Peter in this Sunday’s gospel - “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me” (Mt 16:23) – is quite remarkable, considering that he has just given Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven and the power to bind and loose only a few verses earlier (cf. Mt 16:19). 

What is the reason for Jesus’ strong words against Peter whose comment many will consider perfectly innocent and harmless? After all, his beloved teacher and leader has just revealed that he’s heading to Jerusalem to get killed! 

Here’s the problem. Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ shocking revelation, while well-intended, reflects a fundamental flaw in human thinking that doesn’t jive well with the Father’s divine will and Jesus’ way of confronting tribulations. Aversion to suffering is in the human instinct. Peter, like everyone of us, sees it as an undesirable thing that must be avoided at all costs. It is unpleasant, painful, and, in Jesus’ case, life-threatening. It even goes straight against our human pride, inflicting on us a sense of being overpowered and a feeling that we are losing control. Suffering, affliction, humiliation, death, and a whole host of other traumatic experiences are probably some of the things that race through Peter’s head to cause him to blurt out his unsolicited and unwelcomed advice to Jesus. 

People also see suffering as an affront to a person’s or institution’s power and authority. Why should Jesus allow himself to be overpowered by the Sanhedrin and the Roman authority if he is truly divine and almighty? Similarly, how can the Church suffer from scandal after scandal if it truly has God’s special protection against evils (cf. Mt 16:18)? 

That’s how Peter and many people in general see suffering. But God has a very different perspective. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). 

Like a good teacher, Jesus rebukes Peter, his student, and then explains his rebuttal with a clarity that leaves no room for bewilderment: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 16:24-25). Deny yourself; take up your cross and follow me; and your reward will be me – the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). Lose your life because of me, and you will save it.

The paradox presented by Jesus above is further explained by the Church this way: “Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self” (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, n. 24). The more willing we are in giving ourselves away, the more successful we will be in affirming or establishing our true selves. For a person who gives is a person who loves. And the more we love, the better we resemble God, the perfect and infinite Lover (1 John 4:7-8). 

In the second reading, St. Paul’s appeal for us “to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” is seen by Pope Benedict XVI as “the existential aspect of the new concept of worship and sacrifice” (Rom 12:1; cf. Jesus of Nazareth II, p.236). St. Paul shows us how to give ourselves away, and what it means to take up our crosses and follow Jesus. We should offer our bodies –everything we have – “as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God”. In doing so – in excising our priestly duty in Christ to give away everything we have as a sacrifice to God, including our lives if necessary – we will end up gaining everything. For we will “have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10)! 

A few decades after the above-mentioned gospel episode, Peter, who had once coached Jesus to avoid suffering, would find himself willingly embrace martyrdom in Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero. His death brought fulfillment to Jesus’ prediction about him in the gospel of John: “When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go" (John 21:18). Peter would literally “take up his cross” and follow Jesus, offering his body – upside down on the cross according to Christian tradition, because he felt unworthy of sharing the same posture as his Savior - “as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God”. In giving up his life, Peter found true life – everlasting and abundant. Through a sincere gift of self, he found his true self – vibrant, saintly and fully grown in Christ, “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing” (Eph 5:27).

Monday, July 6, 2020

How Good It Is to be Able to Repent!

Blessed Are They Who Repent, for They Shall Be Forgiven

From God’s “lenience” towards those who repent in the first reading to praising God for He is “good and forgiving” in the Responsorial Psalm; from the Holy Spirit’s intercession for us “with inexpressible groanings” in the second reading to the apocalyptic image of all evildoers who persist in their evil way being thrown into “the fiery furnace” in the gospel; repentance as a theme navigates its way masterfully through this Sunday’s readings with persuasiveness and coherence (Wis 12:18, Ps 86:5, Rm 8:26, Mt 13:42).

Everywhere we turn in the Bible, we hear good news. No wonder St. Paul wants us to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil 4:4). Not feeling well today? Rejoice! Hurt by people’s harsh and unfair criticism? Rejoice! Covid-19 pandemic? Rejoice! No matter what injustices, miseries, and misfortunes “the principalities…the powers…the world rulers of this present darkness” manage to pull out of their sleeves to throw at us, we must not stop rejoicing. For the battle against them has already been won (cf. 1 Cor 15:57, Rev 20:9-10)! God is firmly in control and will always be, even if this world of injustices and tribulations sometimes may suggest otherwise. The Bible is full of good news that work either individually, or collectively, or interchangeably to enable those whose hearts are filled with the Holy Spirit – the author of the Bible – to embrace without wavering this important understanding. And if they are truly able to do that, how can they not rejoice in the Lord always?

So, what is the good news this Sunday? First and foremost, the good news is that we are able to repent; and the Lord, who is “good and forgiving, abounding in kindness to all”, will forgive our sins because of Christ (Ps 86:5).

Wait! Isn’t repentance an option available to us always? Why has it become good news all of a sudden?

True, we have always been able to repent if and when we choose to do so. But before the coming of Christ, repentance alone, no matter how genuine, was insufficient to garner forgiveness for our sins. Christ’s saving grace, accomplished through his passion, death, and resurrection, has completely changed the whole cosmic picture. It is truly an unprecedented and monumental accomplishment. Its completion is a watershed moment, if you will, that has altered the whole order of creation through and through, including the very act of repentance. Before, repentance was just that – a human sentiment, even if good and righteous. After, if we repent, our sins will be forgiven. And Jesus is the sole reason for the difference. He is the only Mediator between God and men, as prefigured by Jacob’s vision of the stairway connecting heavens and earth (1 Tim 2:5, Genesis 28:12, John 1:51). He is, in his own words, “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

For repentance to be acceptable to God, it needs to come straight from the heart. “A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn” (Ps 51:19). But since human hearts are often bursting with pride, we need the Spirit to “come to the aid of our weakness” (Rom 8:26). He knows our every weakness and searches for our every sin - even the most elusive ones hiding either knowingly or unknowingly in the darkest corners of our hearts. He “intercedes with inexpressible groanings”, transforming our hearts and moving us to repent and confess (Rom 8:26, CCC 2739).

The theme of repentance culminates in Jesus’ apocalyptic message for “all who cause others to sin and all evildoers” (Mt. 13:41). They are the stiff-necked people who fail to repent, the “weeds” that grow together with the wheat in the field until harvest (c.f. Mt. 13:24-30). Their fate is to be tied up by the harvesters “in bundles for burning” in “the fiery furnace” (Mt. 13:30, 42).

The realization that God will forgive if we repent fills our hearts with hope and thankfulness. Jesus’ stern warning of the end-of-the-age judgement and the apocalyptic image of “the fiery furnace” where the evildoers “will be wailing and grinding of teeth”, on the other hand, shake us to the core of our being (Mt. 13:42). We must seriously re-examine how we live.